istock-kirillm-450518291.jpg
(Credit: Kirillm/iStockphoto)

Most of us might think that if we uninstall a smartphone app, that's the end of our dealings with that app. But some apps are using privacy-invading tools to continue to track former users and work to get them back.

Bloomberg reported that several well-known companies keep track of users that delete their apps and subsequently bombard them with ads to bring them back.

Some of the uninstall trackers include Adjust, AppsFlyer, MoEngage, Localytics, and CleverTap. Some of their customers include companies like Spotify, T-Mobile US, Yelp, Muiscal.ly, The Weather Channel, and Credit Karma. Bloomberg admitted that its parent company, Bloomberg LP uses Localytics.

SEE: Best apps for securing Android and managing privacy settings

Companies use uninstall trackers to monitor analytics and figure out why users might be deleting their apps. Localytics boasts it serves some 6,000 companies and almost 40,000 apps on over 2.7 billion devices.

"Uninstall tracking allows mobile app marketers to track the number of users who removed an app from their device during a specific time frame and attribute them back to a specific media source. A high uninstall rate is a clear signal that something is wrong. It could be poor app performance, unmet user expectations, sub-optimal user onboarding, etc. So it's important to know when and why users uninstalled an app and make every effort to minimize these occurrences," AppsFlyer's website said.

It's understandable that apps want to retain users, but when does it become a violation of privacy?

Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Bloomberg that he would want to know how many people uninstalled his app, but not who specifically.

Jude McColgan, CEO of Boston's Localytics told Bloomberg that he hasn't seen customers use the uninstall trackers to advertise to former users.

Bloomberg said that uninstall trackers violate Apple and Google's policies against silent push notifications that build advertising audiences.

A silent push notification is a remote notification that doesn't alert you in any way, according to Apple's developer site.

"It wakes your app in the background and gives it time to initiate downloads from your server and update its content," Apple's site said.

If an app doesn't respond to the developer's notification, it's logged as uninstalled. The uninstall tracker tool logs the change in the file. The file is associated with each device's unique advertising ID, which can tell who's holding the phone and advertise to them.

It's true that sometimes apps and companies gain access to information after you accept terms and conditions or the privacy policy. But, ethically, the contract should end after you uninstall the app. People can uninstall an app for numerous reasons that don't have to do with the app itself--such as freeing up storage space on their phone.

While it's understandable that companies want to retain users--since it's typically far less expensive to keep an existing customer than to acquire a new one--the lack of transparency here is the problem. And it could trigger user backlash, violate app store policies, and bring regulatory agencies down on the offenders.

FOLLOW Download.com on Twitter for all the latest app news.

Takeaways

  1. Apps like Spotify, Yelp, and T-Mobile US are using uninstall tracker software to market a user's uninstalled app in hopes of getting them back.
  2. While the trackers operate under the guise of analytics and insights, but Bloomberg Businessweek said that some of the software violates policies set by Google and Apple.

Also see

Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.