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For some recipe apps, your personal data is gravy

Like a Thanksgiving turkey, popular recipe apps are stuffed — with creepy tracking technology.

New research from Mozilla shows top Android recipe apps are feasting on personal data and sending it to third-party advertisers. (iStock) (iStock)
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Paper-and-ink cookbooks come with a few advantages compared to recipe apps: extra information about origins and ingredients, not having to incorporate your beeping phone into any good-for-the-soul cooking time, says cookbook author and critic Paula Forbes.

There’s also a third benefit: Analog cookbooks aren’t sending streams of information about you to third-party advertisers.

A new report from Mozilla Foundation, creator of the “Privacy Not Included” holiday shopping guide, found personal data streaming out of popular Android recipe apps, including precise location, detailed device information as well as scrolling and tapping behavior. Allrecipes Dinner Spinner, Recipes Home — Easy Recipes and Shopping List and Food Network Kitchen were the worst offenders in terms of the number of data requests from advertisers, according to the report.

It’s the latest example of the constant, behind-the-scenes monitoring that powers many of the apps we know and love. App-makers give your data to ad companies, which then combine that information with your activity on totally separate apps to target you with better ads.

Apple launched a privacy feature in April that prompts you to ask apps not to track you around, though some apps may be quietly ignoring those preferences. Google, which owns Android, says the operating system is rolling out a similar feature throughout the next year, but once it arrives, Android device owners will have to track down the setting rather than getting a pop up. Google is also introducing a data safety section in the Google Play app store in February, which will list each app’s notable privacy practices as well as what categories of data it collects. As of now, however, developers aren’t required to disclose which third-party companies they’re sharing that data with.

Discovery, which owns the Food Network Kitchen app, said that by using the app, people agree to its privacy policy. Position Mobile, which owns Recipes Home, said that its data collection practices are consistent with its privacy policy, Google’s rules and standard ad industry practices, and the privacy features available to Android users allow them to control how much information they want to share. Meredith Corporation, which owns Allrecipes, said it takes its privacy obligations seriously.

“Recipes seem, on the surface, so benign,” Forbes, who was busy testing recipes for a new cookbook, said. “It’s a little upsetting if they’re not.”

When you ‘Ask app not to track,’ some iPhone apps keep snooping anyway

The most egregious tracking came from Recipes Home, according to Becca Ricks, the Mozilla researcher behind the report. She observed several different trackers, including Google and Facebook, collecting data from the app. Some advertisers collected her phone’s battery level, whether it was charging and whether headphones were plugged in, she said. One tracker repeatedly asked the app for data on how long people look at different ads.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

For many, apps sharing location and information about your smartphone with other companies behind the scenes feels like a violation of privacy.

“There’s something that just feels icky about it, to know that you were using an app in one way and then that data was used in a completely different, unexpected way,” Ricks said. “For me, it raises questions around consent. What am I agreeing to when I download an app?

She said it should be Google’s responsibility to rein in app tracking, rather than leaving it to customers to adjust their settings. Google wouldn’t say whether it will serve a pop-up prompting people to hide their advertising IDs once that feature is available, like Apple does.

Google, for its part, says that a big part of feeling safe online is having control over your data.

“We are committed to empowering consumers to make their own choices by providing clear information about how apps use data, as well as offering advanced security and privacy controls,” said Google spokesman Scott Westover.

If you fall into the “keep your hands off my personal info” camp, there are ways to work around snooping recipe apps this holiday season. If you use an Android phone, go to Settings -> Google Settings -> Ads. Toggle on “opt out of ads personalization” and tap “reset advertising ID,” which wipes one identifier advertisers use to monitor your activity across different apps.

If you use an Apple device, tap “Ask app not to track” whenever you see that pop up. To review which apps are tracking you, go to Settings -> Privacy -> Tracking.

Keep in mind, though, that these steps only turn off certain advertising identifiers — unique strings of numbers assigned to your Apple or Android device. Companies can still track you by other means, such as by gathering a set of super-specific details about your phone that can act like a “fingerprint” or by assigning you a new ID that helps advertisers track you as you move around different apps.

Our reporting found that even after you ask apps not to track on an iPhone, some continue sending suspicious-looking device data behind the scenes. But Apple says it’s working to find apps that break its rules, and some privacy advocates applauded the company for creating an “ask app not track” option in the first place. Google did not say whether it plans to make similar rules against using alternate means to identify users who choose to hide their Android ad identifiers.

Want to cook incognito?

Forbes recommends the gravy recipe in “Appetites: A Cookbook” by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, Sam Sifton’s “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well,” the buttermilk turkey brine recipe in Samin Nosrat’s “Salt Fat Acid Heat” and Emily and Melissa’s Elsen’s “The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop.”

Google privacy settings to change now