Are your mobile apps spying on you?

Facebook, Twitter, and other popular mobile apps all make copies of your personal contacts -- often without telling you

The controversy over Path, a mobile social networking app that hoovered up its users' address books without telling them and got spanked for it, has just become a much bigger deal. How much do mobile apps really know about you? More than you might think.

Before getting pummeled on the InterWebs, Path CEO Dave Morin said it was "standard industry practice" for apps to upload data from users' address books. It turns out he's right. Some of the most popular mobile apps on the planet -- including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, and Yelp -- all do it.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Get the full lowdown on the smartphone privacy problems that started with Path, courtesy of Cringely. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

But how they do it isn't standardized at all. Some notify you first and ask permission; some don't. Some send the data over an encrypted connection; some don't. Some use the information to suggest friends you might want to connect with and throw it away; some hang on to it for as long as they like. Some encrypt your data on their servers or create a hash and discard the numbers; some store your numbers unprotected in plain text. It's a total crapshoot.

For example: Facebook uploads your contacts by design; on my phone, my contact list and my Facebook friends list are merged. That's no big secret, though it can be a little jarring to open your Facebook contacts list and find the cell numbers of all your friends -- and some strangers, too. Want to delete your mobile contacts from Facebook? You can use this page. If you have an iPhone, you have to turn off syncing; otherwise, they'll be reimported.

The L.A. Times reports that if you use the "find friends" feature on Twitter's iPhone app, the microblogging service hangs onto your entire address book -- names, email addresses, phone numbers -- for 18 months. Don't bother looking for that little info nugget in Twitter's privacy policy; it's not there. Twitter says it's updating its mobile apps to be more forthcoming; in the meantime, you can tell it to delete your contacts posthaste.

Want to search for friends on Foursquare? According to VentureBeat, Foursquare also uploads your phone book, but it alerts you to what it's doing; says, "Don't worry, it's sent securely and we don't store it"; and gives you the option to say nooooo.

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