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Beware: ExpressVPN finds location trackers in 450 malicious apps with billions of downloads

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(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

ExpressVPNresearched 450 smartphone apps and identified every app with location tracker software development kits (SDK), meaning if these apps are installed, your movements are being monitored.

Researched by the ExpressVPN Digital Security Lab in what it calls 'Investigation Xoth (opens in new tab),' the smartphone location tracking study revealed these apps have been downloaded at least 1.7 billion times — meaning the majority of smartphone users are more than likely to have them installed.

Interestingly, amid people switching messenger apps due to WhatsApp's change in its privacy policy, the investigation also found a significant number of location trackers in 42 messenger apps, including apps that closely mimic Telegram, Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

Another key finding was X-Mode, which specializes in location data and was banned by Google and Apple to be used in apps, was found in 199 of the apps that were analysed by the team. In fact, only 10% of the apps, which were supposed to be banned, were removed by Google. Along with this, location tracker Quadrant, with over 60 million daily active users, is present in two apps that have been in recent privacy scandals. Yikes.

Which apps have location trackers?

The security lab found that location tracker SDKs, which are packages of code that can include maps, communication with Bluetooth devices, or even codes for advertising and surveillance, were mostly found in messaging, dating and social apps.

"Dating and social apps are a notable target of location tracker SDKs, making up 64 of the 450 apps we analysed with at least 52 million downloads," the report states. Along with this, Tango, a video messaging and streaming app with more than 200 million downloads, also has location tracker features.

ExpressVPN went on to explain how these apps can monitor your movements, "tourism and food apps recommend restaurants while they send your location to Internet-of-Things (IoT) beacon devices," and "health and fitness apps tell you to go for a walk, building behavioral profiles that are mapped to your movements."

You can find further details on the ExpressVPN Digital Security Lab's Investigation Xoth, along with a full list of apps and tracker information here (opens in new tab).

And, if you're looking to keep private, joining ExpressVPN is one of your best options, along with these other best VPN services

Darragh Murphy is fascinated by all things bizarre, which usually leads to assorted coverage varying from washing machines designed for AirPods to the mischievous world of cyberattacks. Whether it's connecting Scar from The Lion King to two-factor authentication or turning his love for gadgets into a fabricated rap battle from 8 Mile, he believes there’s always a quirky spin to be made. With a Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from The University of Sheffield, along with short stints at Kerrang! and Exposed Magazine, Darragh started his career writing about the tech industry at Time Out Dubai and ShortList Dubai, covering everything from the latest iPhone models and Huawei laptops to massive Esports events in the Middle East. Now, he can be found proudly diving into gaming, gadgets, and letting readers know the joys of docking stations for Laptop Mag.