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Verizon’s new bloatware app will monitor apps you install to target ads at you

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Chris Welch

How’s that for timing. Just as Congress passes a resolution to roll back privacy regulations, Verizon announces a new bloatware app designed to hoover up your data for targeted advertising. As companies look to take advantage of their new found freedom, this is likely to be only the first of many apps created by carriers and ISPs to spy on their users.

According to TechCrunch, the app is named AppFlash, and it’s designed to be a mobile search hub on Android that will live a swipe to the left away from your home screen. During a testing period it’s going to be pre-installed on a single device, the LG K20 V, but Verizon says the app is opt-in to use and customers can easily disable it. The company imagines it’ll be used to search for everything from restaurants to music to mobile apps, but it seems its primary function is going to be collecting user data.

A privacy policy for AppFlash says it will collect information from the customers’ mobile number, the device they’re using, and the apps they have installed. With users’ permission, it’ll also monitor their location and their contacts. All this will be shared with “the Verizon family of companies” to “help provide more relevant advertising.” That family of companies includes AOL and Yahoo, companies Verizon bought to get its hands on their ad tech. And as Verizon had indicated in the past, it wants to share more of its customers’ data with the firms.

How intrusive will this new mobile targeting be? Well, as the EFF points out, knowing the apps you have installed can deliver some very personal information to advertisers. Downloaded a fertility tracker? Get ready for some advertising for baby products. How about a meditation app? Well, you’re probably in need of some anxiety medication. (The EFF has since rescinded its post after learning that Verizon’s program is an opt-in test, but the point stands.)

Screenshots of Verizon’s AppFlash, which is based on technology by startup Evie.

When it comes to ISPs and mobile carriers collecting customers’ information, this app, unfortunately, is not entirely new. In 2011, for example, there was the Carrier IQ controversy, in which a number of carriers admitted to installing software on customers’ phones that tracked data, including browser history and app usage.

But while the Carrier IQ saga ended with a class action lawsuit, it’s not clear where the boundaries for user privacy lie under new FCC chairman Ajit Pai. And although some of the more intrusive trackers in Verizon’s new app are optional, for privacy-minded customers that’s only going to be a small consolation.

Update, March 31st, 10:50AM ET: Updated with extra detail from Verizon.