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Don’t download that app! First, check for these 3 red flags


Do not download new apps without paying attention to these warning signs.

Sarah Tew / CNET

If you don’t read an app’s terms of service before clicking to accept or agree, you’re not alone. According to research, very few people take the time to dive into the text of what an app or website asks of them. In one study, participants unknowingly voted to give their future firstborn children in the company. More often than not, the lengthy documents aren’t meant to be understood, other researchers conclude. Even if companies like Apple add new ways to it stop apps from tracking you, it is still important to pay attention to what you agree to every time you download something new.

“Being able to read the terms of service or privacy policy isn’t easy. It’s not accessible,” said Nader Henein, senior research director and information privacy fellow at Gartner. “If you’ve had lawyers write the policy, chances are that someone without a law degree and a good half hour to spend on it won’t be able to decipher exactly what it’s asking for.”

But don’t worry – we can help. Here are three red flags to look out for before clicking “agree” about a privacy policy to download an app or use a service.

How complex is the language?

In legal disputes over the privacy policy and terms of service, many cases do not go to court because there is no expectation that anyone will actually read the fine print, Henein said. There is also no expectation that a reader will have the necessary training to understand the policy, even if they did, he added.

Apps with complex policies that bury exactly what a person consents to (such as sharing their data with third parties) are unfair on the part of the business and should be avoided, Henein said.

“If the language is complex, and you read the first paragraph and it doesn’t make sense to the average person, that tells me the company really didn’t take people into account in the equation,” said Henein. “You have to be on your guard.”


View an app’s specific settings to check your privacy options.

Jason Cipriani / CNET

Know what an implied match is

Policies seeking implicit or implied consent must raise a red flag. This means that you are not actually “giving” your consent, but your consent is implied by a particular action or situation. Henein says this looks like a terms of service agreement that says, “By browsing this webpage, you agree to A, B, and C.” He said this kind of language is not enforceable and should be unenforceable.

Read more: Most Americans don’t think it is possible to keep their data private, the report says

What does the agreement say about data collection and monetization?

What a policy agreement says According to Engin Kirda, a professor at Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, data collection is another important factor to consider before downloading. This goes hand in hand with how the app makes money, Kirda said – especially when it’s free to download.


What rights does accepting a service agreement grant the apps on your phone?

James Martin / CNET

Monetizing an app with ads can mean that it offers a better service, but it can also mean that it benefits by selling your data. There is a difference between collecting some necessary information to make the app useful versus collecting a lot of information that is sold to third party advertisers – or possibly stolen.

Other warning signs to watch out for

While it’s important to know what’s in a policy agreement, Kirda said there are other red flags you can see without reading the document. Another important red flag is what permissions an app requests: a calculator app, for example, doesn’t need access to your microphone or location. Also note if you can use the app after denying all permissions, he added. Asking for unnecessary permissions could indicate nefarious activity, such as an app accessing your call logs or collecting data from your Wi-Fi connections, for instance.

Michiel de Jong, one of the volunteers at Terms of Service; Didn’t Read – a grassroots project where anyone can help to jointly review a website’s terms and policies – said it’s important to understand that a policy shouldn’t be arbitrarily changed.

“Many services reserve the right to change the policy the day after you sign up and never conform to the version you read when you signed up,” said de Jong.

Additionally, De Jong said he was looking for sites that will make you sign a waiver – meaning they can sue you, but you can’t sue them.


Privacy policy doesn’t always mean an app keeps your data private.

Angela Lang / CNET

Do not panic. You still have some control

To help you grapple with the legal jargon of service agreements and privacy policies, Henein suggested downloading the Terms of Service; Have not read the browser extension, which digests the documents that might ask for your compliance and turns them into something quick and readable. ToS; DR sorts privacy policies and website terms into different classes, with Class A being very good and Class E being the worst. In addition to the class score, contributors can rate parts of the conditions as Good, Bad, Blocking, or Neutral.

For example, Google gets Class C from the site because it has the ability to read a user’s private messages, track a user on other websites, and more. Stack Overflow was rated Class E due to its third-party tracking practices, which required an exemption from group actions and more.

read more: Why it makes no sense to accept a GDPR privacy policy

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Henein cited Microsoft as a good example of how website terms should be presented: The tech company outlines its privacy policy in about three pages, which are divided into sections for structure and clarity.

“Privacy policy should be written by a layman and reviewed by a lawyer, not the other way around,” said Henein. It is now expected that privacy policy should be given as much thought in drafting and designing as the rest of the site. It’s not something that’s a necessary evil – it’s part of the overall site, because it’s meant to be when you tell individuals how you handle their personal data. “

Besides ToS; DR, de Jong suggested DuckDuckGo’s browser extension Privacy Essentials. The service combines data from ToS; DR with data from various other sources on encryption, trackers and more. LegiCrowd is another project that unravels the terms of service with which the ToS; DR team is working together, but de Jong said it is more focused on researchers.

Tosback.org is a site that, according to De Jong, keeps legal policy change logs, sometimes years back. The project was started by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but is now part of ToS; DR.

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