Beware the price of free campaign apps

We live in the Age of Mobile Apps, and it is no surprise that both of this year’s major party presidential candidates are releasing smart phone apps to engage voters.

Prior to picking Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney released Mitt’s VP, to help answer the question everyone had been asking: Who will be Mitt Romney’s VP? “There’s no telling when that answer might come,” the campaign teased. “Just download the app and when Mitt decides on his running mate, you’ll get an exclusive notification from the campaign letting you in on the exciting news before the press and just about everyone else (except maybe Ann).”

Mitt’s VP was made available for Android and iPhone.

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The Obama campaign has released Obama for America for iOS (with an Android version promised) that “has all the tools you need to join the fight to move the country forward.”

Be careful what you download, however. There are a lot of campaign apps out there, and at the risk of sounding cynical, many of them are a lot like politicians: They are more interested in what they can collect than what they deliver.

The official Romney and Obama apps appear to be pretty benign, requesting only the access permissions needed to deliver news and other information to your phone, including Network Communication, Storage and the Vibrator. But they also want to know where you are, apparently to deliver location-specific data about policies and programs. For this, the apps access your coarse Network-based Location function as well as the fine GPS Location.

Access to any of these functions can be exploited by malicious applications, of course, but if you download the apps from the official iTunes and Google Play stores you should be pretty safe, especially if you haven’t been jail-breaking your iPhone. But ask yourself: Do you want the Dems or GOP to always know where you are?

There are other apps out there, also apparently legitimate, that are a lot nosier. The free Romney app developed by iDesign Mobile Apps promises news feeds and official press releases, as well as fact-checking on statements by the candidate (“use this to prepare your discussions on politics!”). It also includes a lengthy list of permissions.

In addition to the routine processes above, including communications, storage and location, the iDesign app also wants access to audio, photo and video functions, which allows it to gather images and sounds; to personal information including your log files and contacts, with the ability to add to or modify your contacts; and to your phone calls. Why this app needs the ability to record videos or play games with your contact list is not clear. My personal opinion is that this is too high a price to pay in privacy for access to news you can get from any number of reputable Web sites.

User reviews of this app give it a respectable rating of 3.3 on a 5-point scale, but the negative reviews focus on its performance (“Love Romney but this app sucks”) rather than its disturbing list of permissions.

The bottom line is, you need to pay attention to what you are getting when you get a free app, and what you are giving. The apps might be interesting and even useful, but you often can get the same functionality without the sacrifices from a Web site. Just because there’s an app for that doesn’t mean you have to download it.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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