Apps are self-contained, specialised applications that run on smartphones and tablets and, more recently, on some computers.
There are many types of apps — apps for social media, music, banking and games — the list goes on. Many apps are free and some attract a charge, depending on the features you want.
What are the risks when using apps?
It is safe to assume that apps present few risks, if you are careful and take a few precautions, such as checking reviews in the app stores before downloading them. It is a good idea to check your device’s privacy settings regularly as well as the app’s, so you know how much information you are sharing. See the eSafety Guide for information about the privacy settings for individual apps.
Collection of information
When installing an app, it will ask you if it needs access to information on your device, for example, your contacts list or address book. The app might also suggest you turn on location services so it can plot where you are. Choose carefully whether you want to share this information. If you are not sure, do some research and check out the reviews.
Some apps will not install or work if you deny access to this information, which most apps use for internal marketing purposes and to improve app functions. You may need to think carefully about whether you want to allow this access.
Some, but not all, apps have very good data security. Because it is impossible to tell what level of security an app has until a problem emerges, it would be wise to provide only the minimum amount of information about yourself that you need to.
What can I do to minimise the risks?
Follow these easy tips to avoid unnecessary risks.
Know before you install
- Always read the installation messages for apps, especially permissions — this will help you assess any likely risk.
- Reading reviews of the app can give you an idea of any issues that others have had from installation. Most app sites have user reviews on the same page as the download button.
- When downloading apps, it is safer to download them from reputable sources, such as the Apple or Google Play stores.
- Only download apps if you feel comfortable providing the kinds of information and access you are asked for.
Spyware and malware
There are some apps — malware, adware and spyware apps — that are malicious and attempt to collect information from your device. They are more common on Android devices but can also be added to ‘jailbroken’ Apple devices too. They can track your location, browsing interests, social media use and other activities and pass this information on to unauthorised people.
Many apps also employ in-app purchasing, some of which are very subtle and can convince you to pay for services you do not need. In-app purchases can cost significant amounts of money, especially if your child is using your device and does not understand how these features work.
Location services on devices allow apps to track users and tailor ads for their region, amongst other things. It is easy to turn location services off, however, be aware that doing this might prevent some apps, like map-related apps, food delivery apps or ride sharing apps, from working properly.
Save and store your app conversation
If you are using a dating app and decide to meet someone in person for the first time, it is a good idea to back up your conversation manually by taking a screenshot of it and storing that outside the app or using the cloud. See our tips on safer online dating.
Review your settings regularly
- Check the privacy and security settings on your device regularly, particularly after installing operating platform and app updates.
- Turn location services off for all apps, and then turn it back on only for the apps that use it for legitimate functions, preferably only when you are using the app. If you cannot turn off the location function on an app, it may be better not to use that app.
- Turn off in-app purchases. To do this on Apple devices follow this advice on how to prevent in-app purchases. On Android devices, update your settings so that authentication is required for in-app purchases.
- Remove or delete apps on your phone that you no longer use.
Secure your accounts and devices
- Always keep your device in a secure place and use a passcode or PIN to lock your device.
- Do not use a ‘jailbroken’ phone — or one that has been modified to get around the manufacturer’s software restrictions. Jailbroken phones can be unstable and insecure and are open to exploitation.
- Some apps use ‘single sign-in’ — using the same log-in details for different apps such as using your Facebook or Twitter accounts to log in to other apps. This is risky, particularly if your social media account is compromised. It is wiser to use separate logins with different passwords for sensitive data-storing apps. See our advice on protecting your personal information and creating strong passwords.
- Always install the recommended updates and security patches, which often include important bug fixes as well as improvements to the app itself.
- Consider installing a mobile security app on your device. These apps can scan for viruses, malware and spyware. Android systems are at a greater risk from viruses, malware and spyware than Apple devices.
- Remember to log out of apps when you finish using them, especially financial apps.