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theEweekly Wrap: Contacts, complaints and crooks

Contacts copycats It emerged this week that the contacts and address books of smartphone users may have been copied and shared without their knowledge. When an app invites users to ‘find friends’ or similar, it searches their contact list, but it seems some do not ask permission to access this data, while many in fact copy and store this data on their servers. Singapore app developer Arun Thampi first noticed the problem last week, relating to the Path social network app, but it has since emerged that apps including Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter have all been guilty of the same practice.

The issue has so far only been reported in iOS apps for the iPhone, prompting two US congresspersons to write to Apple CEO Tim Cook. A statement was later issued by the company warning: “Apps that collect or transmit a user’s contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines“, and “any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release”. Path has since issued an apology, while Twitter has promised to ask for explicit permission in future versions of its app, including changing the wording to ‘upload’ or ‘import’ instead of the current ‘scan’.

Doctor Google Google announced on Monday that it is updating its algorithm to improve results for searches relating to health, illnesses and symptoms. The official blog post revealed that Google will soon suggest results for illnesses and conditions if a user searches for symptoms. Chief health strategist Roni Zeiger explained: “The list is generated by our algorithms that analyze data from pages across the web and surface the health conditions that appear to be related to your search”, although “the list is not authored by doctors and of course is not advice from medical experts”.

The algorithm update is designed to shorten the journey from symptoms to possible causes, but will not affect searches that may be informational. Search Engine Land gave the example that a term like ‘chest pain’ would display these suggested diagnoses, while searching for ‘heart attack’ would still provide informational results. It seems the change is yet to roll out in the UK, and it remains to be seen whether suggestions will be customised based on the profile and web history of logged-in users.

Crowd-sourced justice German police are using social media to help track down wanted criminals. A pilot scheme was conducted in Hanover last year named Fahndung via Facebook, where police posted Photofit images of suspects on their Facebook page, and asked their 99,000+ friends to help with the manhunt. The scheme led to eight arrests in Hanover, and eventually helped solve six criminal investigations. Furthermore, posting stills from CCTV footage has helped locate two missing persons. When controversy arose surrounding data being stored on Facebook’s US servers, Hanover police began posting links to their own site instead.

The success of the scheme has led to the state of Lower Saxony announcing it intends to officially adopt the rather controversial methods. Minister of the Interior Uwe Sch√ľnemann told Zeit Online: “A police force that is modern and geared to the future cannot avoid social networks” (translation). The Next Web reported that the states of Berlin and Brandenburg are also considering implementing a similar scheme. However, German authorities are notoriously strict on privacy and data protection. Google Street View caused uproar, while Facebook facial recognition tagging was heavily criticised; meanwhile, one German state banned the Facebook Like button.

Written by Rachel Hand

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