Lookout Aims to Rein In Mobile Advertisers' Bad Behavior

Mobile device management company Lookout starts warning when apps use advertising networks known for questionable practices.  

Many mobile-application developers rely on advertising to offer their apps for free yet still turn a profit. However, a lack of rules on what constitutes good behavior in advertising on mobile devices has allowed many advertising platforms to adopt aggressive practices.

On June 26, mobile-device management firm Lookout announced it would warn users of installed programs that used aggressive advertising platforms, such as taking personal data without the user's knowledge or causing pop-up advertisements outside of the developer's application. The current landscape resembles the Wild West, without many standards of good behavior, Jeremy Linden, security product manager at Lookout, told eWEEK.

"It is important for people to have trust in their applications and trust in their mobile advertising networks," Linden said. "We think they should have to respect the social contracts."

Nearly half of all mobile applications use advertising networks to generate revenue, according to Lookout. While adware continues to be uncommon, about 1.6 percent of Android users have adware installed, according to the company's data. Overall, about 6.5 percent of applications on Google Play use advertising networks whose practices do not follow Lookout’s guidelines.

In May, Lookout contacted advertising networks and served notice that in 45 days it would start flagging any application that used an aggressive ad network as "adware." Some networks responded, and the company is currently in talks with those firms about proper codes of conduct. Yet, as of June 18, five networks had not responded at all, and Lookout will begin to flag them as adware and offer users advice on how to uninstall the programs.

"Ad networks that overstep user privacy bounds or negatively affect user experience create conflict, compromising not only consumers’ privacy and user experience, but also the developer community that relies on mobile ad networks to bring free products to market," the company said in its announcement of the policy.

Nearly 30 percent of free applications ask for location information and more than 10 percent ask for account information, according to a recent report released by Juniper Network's Mobile Threat Center. Among the worst offenders are personalization applications and games, Lookout discovered.

In July 2012, Lookout released its Mobile App Advertising Guidelines, a set of guidelines for advertising networks. The company has called for advertising firms to explain to users in plain language what information they will collect and what sort of actions they intend to take on the user's device and get the user's consent before taking any actions.

While Lookout has blocked other, more malicious, advertising networks, it decided to contact companies that were among those with borderline practices, Linden said.

"We hope that, by shedding light into the dark nooks and crannies of the mobile advertising industry, that this will, first of all, educate users, and second of all, help opinion coalesce around a better standard for mobile advertising in general," Linden said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...