On a flight about a year ago, I found myself in a predicament: I could not pay for my customary glass of plane wine to help calm the nerves. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have cash or a credit card on me but instead that I didn’t have the airline’s app, which was necessary to complete the transaction. I was motivated to get the plane wine, but not that motivated — I gave up somewhere between downloading the app on the shoddy in-flight wifi and uploading my credit card to it. So now it sits idle on my phone, as do countless other apps I’ve had to get for one reason or another over the years, the vast majority of which I do not want or use.
It really does feel like there’s an app for everything these days — often for things where they’re not really needed. We all managed to do business with each other for years and years without having to pull out our phones at every corner.
Admittedly, the cultural peak of “there’s an app for that” mania was years ago, at a moment when, in many cases, said apps actually proposed making our lives better. But it’s been forever since many people have felt enthusiastic about downloading an application; instead of serving customers, apps now serve companies and have transformed into a sort of necessary evil to receive some product or service. The hotel has an app, the dentist has an app, the restaurant down the street has an app.
Apps are a way for companies to get customers into their ecosystems, to try to entice them with promotions and discounts, and, importantly, to get their data to track them or send that data to others. Consumers are sometimes sold on the convenience ploy — once you’re set up on that McDonald’s app, it does make your next order easier. But is the bother worth it to download the app in the first place? And once you do, what about that data trade-off? In an age of endless data breaches, is ordering that Big Mac 30 seconds faster worth the risk of a stolen credit card number?
“The proliferation of apps has many benefits for people,” said Karen Gullo, an analyst and senior media relations specialist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in an email. “Unfortunately, most businesses use apps to harvest and monetize our personal data. People can use their settings to block some data collecting and tracking, but app makers often find ways to get around that.”
So we’re all stuck with a bunch of apps floating around on our phones that really, seriously, were not necessary, many of which are tracking us in a way that is also, really, seriously not necessary.
You get an app, a company (and its friends) get your information
With the rise of mobile phones came the rise of apps, which, to a certain extent, makes sense. If we’re going to be carrying devices around with us all the time, we might as well make use of them.
Apps offer a promise of convenience for users and, for companies, dollar signs. Apps let businesses learn more about their customers, make them offers, and nudge them in ways that they hope will lead to more profits. In 2017 in Japan, McDonald’s found that customers using its app spent 35 percent more, on average. McDonald’s said the app made ordering more seamless, so people used it more often. It also noted that people took the app’s suggestions for add-ons and then stored those orders to be repeated later, which translated to higher spending. “Learning those habits and turning that back into marketing is one of the big draws,” said Dominic Sellitto, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems at the University at Buffalo School of Management.
The more app makers know about you, the better able they are to market and sell to you. They often also sell that information to third parties that want to reach you, too. And there aren’t a ton of legal barricades around how much data apps can collect and what they can do with it.
“There’s really no limit to data collection, so this data can be collected about you and shared and sold between different data brokers or analytics companies to build really granular consumer profiles, which can then be used for targeted advertising and sold for other purposes,” said Suzanne Bernstein, a law fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Sure, maybe there’s a lengthy privacy disclosure, but nobody reads those, even if they do get into the details. “This whole system is sustained by this imbalance of power and control, this asymmetry, where we’re kind of in the dark as consumers as to what is happening with our data.”
And when consumers do get to understand what’s happening, what they find can be a little bothersome. Earlier this year, a court in Canada approved a settlement with customers of the coffee chain Tim Hortons over app users having their geolocation data collected without notice and consent. (The remedy was that those customers affected would get a free hot beverage and baked good.) McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are both introducing features that let them track customers’ locations on mobile app orders, supposedly so their food will be fresh and crisp when they arrive to pick it up.
Some of the tracking and data stuff can be quite disturbing. In 2022, the FTC reached a settlement with the period tracker app Flo after finding it was sharing personal health information with marketing and analytics companies like Facebook and Google.
“Not every single company is doing this, but I think, unfortunately, it is one of the reasons why you see a proliferation of apps,” said Jennifer King, privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
The pandemic made our app-palooza situation, in many arenas, more palpable, as more people flocked to apps for shopping and entertainment and education, and companies were eager to oblige. The move to social distancing meant many businesses turned to phones as a way to make what were once in-person interactions virtual. Even as life has gotten back to normal, the insistence on apps has persisted.
Now, your hotel key is an app, as is your train ticket. Your dentist or doctor has maybe rolled out an app to book appointments even though the old way, honestly, worked just fine. At a restaurant, it’s not uncommon to wind up having to scan a QR code that eventually results in you downloading some app just so you can place an order or pay. “That’s going to be a relationship where they’re providing a service to the restaurant, but they’re taking your data without a doubt,” King said.
The app thing isn’t even that great for a lot of businesses, even though a lot of them do it
“It’s like having a TikTok page, I think it’s just that people feel like they need to have one because they hear that people use apps,” said Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “Not everybody needs an app.”
That hasn’t stopped everybody — or, at least, a lot of businesses — from having one.
There are a bunch of appealing statistics about mobile apps that get most businesses “worked up into a lather,” said Jason Goldberg, commerce strategy officer at advertising firm Publicis. According to the Business of Apps, there are about 1.8 million apps available in the Apple App Store and 2.3 million in the Google Play Store. For both, business is among the most popular categories. People spend hours each day on their phones, largely on apps, and spend billions of dollars on apps. Goldberg said companies’ most valuable customers are often on their apps.
All of this convinces a lot of business leaders they need an app, too, that it will be the key to juicing their business. “The only problem with that is it’s basically wrong,” Goldberg said. “While there are a huge amount of people who download apps, you know what there are not? A huge amount of people who use that app more than once after they download it. There are astronomical abandonment rates.”
It’s kind of like a credit card for an individual retailer you maybe sign up for once to get a discount and then never use again. You download an app to make one purchase or to navigate one leg of a vacation, or on a day when you’re feeling inspired to kick-start your diet. And then you ... forget. The company may be getting some data on you still, but not as much as if you were a power user, which there’s no incentive for you to be.
“That’s the fundamental question brands need to ask themselves — what kind of relationship do you have with your shoppers, and are you one that has a lot of frequent interactions, or do you have moments, like in travel, when somebody is going to have 50 different questions?” Kodali, from Forrester, said. For a lot of companies, the answer to that question is no.
Kodali said that a lot of businesses have rolled out apps basically on account of FOMO — meaning fear of missing out — because they see everyone else doing it. Goldberg echoed the sentiment, adding that businesses have had plans for an app in place for a while and so have just proceeded without really asking whether it makes sense. “Only the very biggest and best companies can win the mobile app game,” he said. “Often, I see the mid-tier companies and the long-tier companies that shouldn’t be trying to compete with the goliaths ... but they make the mistake of trying to emulate what Amazon and Walmart are doing.”
Yes, the data is valuable to companies, but it’s not as exclusive to apps as it used to be. “You can get just as much data from good mobile webpages as you can from a mobile app,” Goldberg said.
There’s a bit of silver lining here, which is that app makers have a harder time tracking you than they used to, by design — specifically, by Apple’s design. In 2021, the iPhone maker updated its system so that people sometimes get the option when they open an app to ask it not to track. It works ... okay-ish, but it’s not perfect.
The FTC is currently working on rulemaking around the “commercial surveillance economy” and just how much businesses collect, analyze, and profit from people’s data. In the US, some states, such as California, are making headway on privacy laws or have them in place. Privacy advocates say that what the US really needs is a sweeping federal privacy law, which isn’t exactly on the horizon.
So in the meantime, we’re swimming in a sea of apps, many of which we don’t want or need. Companies are making money off the data that accompanies them, though not as much as many would probably like. And they’re not getting much better at protecting that data.
“There’s two pathways this can go. One pathway is people get more and more protective of their privacy, and that spurs legislation or some sort of movement that changes the way this works, or, on the flip side, we all just get desensitized to it and say, ‘Bummer, my credit card got stolen again,’” Sellitto said.
Perhaps, at the very least, we acknowledge we truly do not want or need this many apps — the convenience case really loses its oomph when you’re going to your phone to execute every little detail of your life. Or, in my case, when you’re in the air, attempting to secure a single glass of Pinot Grigio.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
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