BEREA, OH (WOIO) - It's no secret we live in a connected world. But could the devices we use every day for convenience be spying on us, much more than we even know?
When you use smart devices or social media apps, you know they track some of what you do for a better experience.
But how much data are they really collecting and where is it going?
The answer may shock you.
"Day-to-day, I don't think you can avoid it. If you want to completely cut yourself off and not use Bluetooth, not use a Fitbit, don't use a smartphone. I mean it's really hard to get away from," said Briana Laszlo, an engineering major at Baldwin Wallace University.
She's in the MOPS Research Group. That stands for "mobile privacy and security."
The research group is led by Brian Krupp, an assistant professor of computer science.
Krupp points out the website and apps we use every day have something in common -- from Google to Amazon to Facebook.
"The old adage is that if the product is free, you are the product right?" Krupp said.
But what are these websites and apps doing with your information?
"I think most consumers have this idea, 'I have nothing to hide,' but if we show them what kind of information applications are able to gather, I think that their behaviors will change," Krupp said.
Krupp and a team of students found that these apps were top sellers to advertisers:
How apps really track you
Apps on your smartphone usually want access to at least one of these: your location, photos and contacts.
"If you think of the type of sensitive information you have in your photos, once that information leaves your device there's no way for you to get it back," Krupp said.
The location and time is captured in a photo or selfie you just snapped on your smartphone.
When you allow an app to track your location, it's so precise Krupp says it can pinpoint what room you're in at home.
What happens next is even creepier.
"If I gather that location information throughout the day, I can come up with daily patterns of where you're at, when you typically leave to go to work, when you come home, or even when you pick a child up from day care for example," Krupp said.
Turning on your location can be very helpful, even necessary for some apps.
Google gives you personalized recommendations and points out the cheapest gas on Google maps when you're driving.
But sometimes turning on your location comes with a price.
"Once that information leaves your device, you don't have any control over it. It could be copied, it could be duplicated, it could be transferred to another system, and you don't even know about it," Krupp said.
Krupp first studied privacy concerns with apps.
"We found that the Weather Channel, as soon as it accesses your location, it sells it to advertisers," he said.
His research group created a list of top sellers to advertisers, including Domino's Pizza and dictionary.com.
Krupp says they sell your location to advertisers when you use their apps.
According to Krupp's research, LinkedIn sells your contact's emails, phone numbers and street addresses, and Pinterest sells your email and phone number.
They studied about 650 apps, and Krupp found 283 shared personal data with advertisers, while
Forty three apps misused data beyond what was requested under permission.
Briana said their research should be a wakeup call.
"I mean they're taking your information, that's your information, they are making money off of it. You get nothing out of it," Laszlo said.
A new app could increase public awareness
Right now the MOPS Research Group is working on an app that shows users where their data is going.
You'll be able to sign up, and in 24 hours find out where all of your personal information went and how it was used.
The point is to show you what applications are doing behind the scenes, which most people don't have access to.
"Really the only change that's going to come from Apple or Google or Facebook or whatever tech company is when the consumers start pushing and saying, 'we want better protection, we want to ensure that we have privacy,'" Krupp said.
Briana hopes this could be the beginning to finding a solution to protecting yourself in a world that gets more connected every day.
"Respect yourself and know that you have a right to your privacy. Just because it's a common thing that's happening doesn't mean that it's okay," she said.
The MOPS Research Group plans to launch their app in the fall.
Kurt Wolfe may be a millennial, but you won't find many social media apps on his phone -- especially not Facebook.
"I don't think people realize how important their personal privacy is, especially when you have a device connected to you at all times," he said.
He's majoring in network security at Baldwin Wallace University and working on the privacy app with the MOPS Research Group.
"You're a product of this mass data mining," Wolfe said. "If you have that data go into some of the wrong hands, it can be used against you."
How to protect yourself
In the meantime, there are several ways you can cut down on how much information is out there.
We're going to focus on the device you probably use the most often-- your phone.
A new study by Pew Research found six in ten Americans want to do more to protect their privacy.
Here's how you can start.
Go to "settings" in your phone.
If you have an iPhone, scroll through each app, one at a time, to check what's turned on.
If you have an Android, go to "app permissions."
You can turn off the microphone, location and camera on each app, one by one.
"Really the only one I keep on would be maps, because I use that when I drive sometimes," Wolfe said.
You may be surprised what some apps have access to.
"There's times where maybe you might download a calculator application and yet it wants to listen to you through a microphone. There's absolutely no reason for that," Wolfe said.
"Keeping your GPS location off, as well as keeping stuff like Bluetooth off, both will be a benefit, kind of win-win," he said.
It saves your battery and data isn't constantly leaving your device.
Lastly, look into a VPN service for your phone.
It comes with a cost, but Kurt says there are more choices out there because of all of the data leaks.
"It's as simple as turning your phone on and literally connecting to the VPN itself, and carrying on with normal use of your phone," Wolfe said.
It prevents data collection from you, whether for advertisements or selling your personal information.
"Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the industry I'm in, I find it very interesting. But to a point, I feel people need to take a step back from it and go outside and actually enjoy the weather and go do some other stuff other than be connected all the time," Wolfe said.
Europe is ahead of the United States when it comes to regulating how companies can gather personal information.
Next month, the European Union is starting a new privacy law that treats personal data as "owned by an individual," so you need a person's permission to use it.