20 mobile apps accused of spying on millions of users

VPNs and ad blockers, supposed to protect privacy, were actually used to spy on smartphones on behalf of Sensor Tower. The BuzzFeed News site has identified at least 20 applications downloaded 35 million times.

A survey by the BuzzFeed News site has discovered that applications, published since 2015 on Android and iOS , collect data without the users’ knowledge. The case involves ad blockers and VPNs owned by Sensor Tower, an analytics platform. BuzzFeed News has identified at least 20 apps with a total of 35 million downloads.

The programs were able to access all of the data exchanged by the smartphone through the use of a root certificate. The application store rules of Apple and Google normally prevent this kind of practice. Sensor Tower bypassed the restrictions by prompting users to download the certificate from a website after installation.

VPN applications and ad blockers collect data without the knowledge of smartphone users. © Monet, Adobe Stock

Some apps are still available

The company hid from users its link with ad blockers and VPNs by publishing them under other names, such as Gibli Mobile or Emban Networks. Randy Nelson, chief mobile analyst at Sensor Tower, tried to reassure by indicating that they did not collect any sensitive data or personally identifiable information.

Most of the apps had already been removed for violating Google and Apple policies. Contacted by BuzzFeed News, Apple has removed Adblock Focus from its App Store , but Luna VPN is still available. On the side of Google, Luna VPN, Free and Unlimited VPN and mobile data are still present on the Play Store for Android. The firm is currently investigating it.