Nearly 1 million Google Play apps were found to have capabilities to track user behaviour, with the data ending up in the hands of tech giants like Alphabet and Facebook, an Oxford University study found.

“This paper presents an empirical study of the prevalence of third-party trackers on 959,000 apps from the US and UK Google Play stores. We find that most apps contain third party tracking,” which “allows companies to identify users and track their behaviour across multiple digital services,” the researchers said.

The data can be used to create detailed profiles of individuals and used for targeted advertising, credit scoring and political campaign messages.

When the study looked at who owned the tracking companies to which data was being sent, 88 per cent were owned by Alphabet, 43 per cent by Facebook and 34 per cent by Twitter. Verizon, Microsoft and Amazon were also on the list.

Financial Times (FT) reported Google as saying the data collected is used for “ordinary functions” such as information on when an app crashes.

“We have clear policies and guidelines for how developers and third-party apps can handle data and we require developers to be transparent and ask for user permission. If an app violates our policies, we take action,” the search giant stated.

Vested interests
The researchers explained action against such apps may have been held back by the vested interests of service providers as “both Google and Apple have historically had a stake in the digital advertising industry.”

Google owns several tracking companies including DoubleClick while Apple used to take a cut of revenue from advertising network trackers in iPhone apps, although this programme ended in 2016.

Reuben Binns, who led the university research project, told FT the business model of apps making money from advertisements “has gone completely out of control and created a kind of chaotic industry that is not understood by the people who are most affected by it.”