Pet Tracking Apps Leaking Information on Users, Study Finds

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Apps that allow owners to track their pets may be leaking information on users, a team of computer scientists at Newcastle University and the Royal Holloway, University of London, have warned.

The findings were published in a report from the 2022 IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy Workshops, part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The experts examined 40 popular tracking apps for “farm and companion animals” available for Android devices from March to July 2021, using a range of methods and tools to perform various security assessments including static, dynamic, and network traffic analysis.

Apps included PoochPlay and FarmWizard, among others.

The researchers conducted a privacy evaluation based on the policies set by data protection regulations.

They found that several of the apps had issues with how they communicate the user’s login details, which they said could put users at risk by allowing hackers to intercept the login process and gain the user’s login information, as well as some other personal details like the user address or location details.

According to the computer scientists, several of the apps displayed the user’s login details in plain text in the non-secure HTTP traffic of the app, which they said is “incredibly concerning” as it means anyone is able to observe the internet traffic of someone using one of the apps and will be able to find out their login information.

The experts noted that these security vulnerabilities are “easily preventable.”

Poor Privacy Performance

As well as these security vulnerabilities, the experts found that all but four of the applications were found to feature some form of tracking software, which gathers information on the individual using the app, such as how they use it and how much time they spend on it, or on the smartphone that is being used.

The experts also noted that the apps performed poorly in terms of user privacy, with more than half of the apps they analyzed interacting with a tracking service before the user was able to consent to it.

Additionally, the apps performed poorly when it came to getting the user to agree to their privacy policy as required by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), with just four of the apps explicitly getting user consent.

“Collecting information about a user through trackers is fine, as long as the application first gets the user’s consent. Applications that are sharing user data through trackers or leaks prior to getting consent from the user, via the privacy policy, are violating the GDPR,” the researchers wrote.

“On top of this analysis, a review of the current top animal welfare and privacy legislation was performed. From this, we find a complete lack of legislation surrounding these increasingly commonplace animal technologies,” they wrote.

The researchers said they have communicated the security vulnerabilities to the app companies and “contributed towards fixing their products.”

Pet Tracker Market to Surge

According to ReportLinker, the global smart-tracker market for pets is expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2028, boosted in part by the rise in working individuals following a reopening of the economy after COVID-19 lockdowns, which initially saw people shift to working from home.

A rise in pet health awareness among owners looks likely to contribute to the worth in sales of such trackers, according to the market data company.

“Pet tech, such as smart collars and GPS trackers for your cat or dog, is a rapidly growing industry and it brings with it new security, privacy, and safety risks to the pet owners,” said Scott Harper, a doctoral student at Newcastle University’s school of computing and the lead author of the study, in a Feb. 27 press release.

Harper urged individuals using pet tracker apps to ensure that they are using a unique password and to check the settings. He also suggested users consider how much data they share or are willing to share on such apps.

“While owners might use these apps for peace of mind about the health of their dog or where their cat is, they may not be happy to find out about the risks the apps hold for their own cybersecurity,” Harper said.

The Epoch Times has contacted PoochPlay and FarmWizard for comment.

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