While developing an iPhone app I ran accross Pinch Media. This company is offering free “application usage statistic tools” for iPhone developers. All you have to do is register and integrate a library provided by Pinch Media into your iPhone app and you get live statistics of your application’s usage (sorted by country, time of usage, iphone/ipod type…) on the Pinch Media Website. Sounds pretty good, huh?

     I tested Pinch Media’s offerings and found out:

  • Every time you quit an application that integrates Pinch Media, the following data gets transferred to Pinch Media: iPhone UUID (the unique ID of your iPhone), iPhone Software release, iPod/iPhone version, a timestamp when application usage started, a timestamp when application usage ended and (if you allowed it) the longitude and latitude values of your position. You can see the detailed data that gets sent out to Pinch Media in the graphic to the left.
  • If no active internet connection is detected, the usage data gets saved to an sqlite database for every session. The next time there is an internet connection available all that data gets sent out to Pinch Media servers (beacons.pinchmedia.com).
  • This all happens in the background. The user has no clue that the data is being sent to Pinch Media.

     I then became curious as to how many applications in the App Store already integrate Pinch Media. I did a quick check on my iPhone (such a check works only on jailbroken-phones, look for the pinchmedia subfolder in Documents of each applications)  I have currently 30 3rd party applications installed. 9 of them integrated Pinch Media. Your mileage may vary, but it just shows that a lot of applications seem to use Pinch Meda already. Just to note: None of these apps mention anywhere that they are sending out data to 3rd parties (Pinch Media).

     While I can see the huge benefit of Pinch Media for me as an application developer, I decided not to integrate it.

     Here is why: I have a problem with applications sending out private data to 3rd parties in the background, while the user has no clue that this is happening. Whatever Pinch Media uses this data for (possibly further advertising), I think it’s not good practice. While many people are afraid that Google is collecting lots of data, it seems regarding iPhone Application Usage statistics there is already another “Big Brother”. The “Pinch Media Analytics Tools” for iPhone Applications are comparable to what “Google Analytics” is for Websites. But there is a big difference: You can easily find out if a website uses Google Analytics by just looking at the HTML source; but that’s hard to do with iPhone applications.

     While people are critical about what’s going on with their desktop computers (applications phoning home etc.) and can block those activities with firewalls, this awareness seems to be missing when it comes to smart phones, until now. If you are on a cellular network you have no control to block (e.g. by a firewall) what the application is doing and which servers it is sending data to. You have to trust the application developer, and that the application is doing what was announced. As 3rd party applications on smart phones have just started to emerge, this is definitely a problem that needs to be solved in the future. Until then, developers should explicitly announce somewhere in the application description, if they send out data to 3rd parties and give the user an option to turn this behavior off.