Questions to ask when you’re trying to decide on a new app or service

Choose your apps wisely.

You’re probably familiar with the registration box that often pops up when you launch a new app or try a new service online—it seems like you can’t give anything a go without providing an email address, and sometimes more. And to make matters worse, you’re usually required to agree to a dense terms and conditions statement, which—let’s be honest—you probably don’t even read.

So you’ll need to know which apps, sites, and services are safe to subscribe to, and which are best avoided. To help you navigate those choppy privacy waters, we’ve put together a straightforward checklist that will give you a much better idea about whether that new sign-up is really worth it.

What are you being asked for?

The more details and data you’re asked for up front, the more wary you should be. You can always unsubscribe from an email list or block spam messages, but it’s harder to limit the use of data like your postal address or your phone number.

Remember that advertisers’ main goal is to build a profile of who you are and what you like. Even if you don’t plan to reveal too much, the app or service you’re using might still be able to link your email address or phone number to existing profiles in marketing databases.

Taking the option to sign in with Facebook or Google might be more convenient than tapping out a new username and specifying your email address, but it also makes it easier for third parties to connect the dots between information they’ve got on you.

If you don’t want to help advertisers, directly signing into your new app with your email address could be a better idea. Having an alternative email address you only use for this purpose might also be useful, and there’s even a browser extension that will do that for you.

What permissions does the app want?

It might not be possible to do before you give away your email address or register for an account, but it’s always worth checking what permissions an app is requesting. Does it want to look through your photos? Is it asking for access to the microphone on your smartphone? Are these requests justified?

From Android Settings, you can tap Apps & notifications, then the name of an app to see what it’s asked for. On iOS, open Settings, then tap Privacy to see which app has access to what. On Windows, choose Privacy from Settings, and on macOS, select Security & Privacy, then Privacy from System Preferences.

Just because an app has a range of permissions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s using them nefariously, but it’s something else to take into account when deciding whether or not you want to do business with an app.

What else have the developers done?

Google apps
Boy, Google sure does make a lot of stuff. David Nield

Looking at the developer’s other apps can help you work out whether something is trustworthy or not. You can, for example, just tap on a developer or studio name in the Android or iOS app stores to see what they’ve done (for example, check out all of Facebook’s apps on Android).

Doing so should at least tell you whether the app’s creator has a pedigree in developing apps or games, or whether they have sprung up from nowhere and are likely to disappear just as quickly.

A simple internet search will help, too, giving you information about where a developer is based, what its reasons are for releasing apps and services, and more. If you struggle to find anything or what you find is somewhat suspect, that’s another reason to be on your guard.

Still, just because a developer or studio is new, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily looking to scam you or are more likely to violate your privacy. After all, so many established companies have been involved in data breach scandals.

Who else is using it?

Yes, reviews can be faked and should not be the only reason you choose something, but you should still make sure you check them out. Opinions and testimonies from other users will show you whether people are having a good experience with a platform and help you understand if it has been tested by independent tech reviewers.

If you read enough, you’ll get a more general and accurate idea of the pros and cons of the app you’re looking at. The rule is: the more you read, the less likely you’ll fall for bot-written reviews.

Even the best apps start out with no users, so don’t be too harsh here—you might have discovered a hidden gem. Also keep in mind the most popular apps aren’t always the safest. It’s not an exact science, but checking user reviews just might flag something that helps you avoid a dud.

In particular, see if the developer responds to issues and complaints posted by users. Prompt and polite responses to feedback is one sign that you are dealing with a software team that can be trusted.

How is the app or service making money?

If you’re not paying up front for an app, site, or service, ask yourself how it’s making money. Perhaps by farming off your personal details to the highest bidder? Or hosting invasive ad networks? Is there a premium access level?

Sometimes software developers release apps for free just for the love of coding and helping others, and big names like Facebook and Google can do so because they’re backed by huge advertising networks. A lot of the hottest new apps don’t cost money because they’re funded by venture capitalists looking for future financial returns.

That’s not to say you should never install a free app—just be cautious if you can’t see how it’s making money. Vigilance is particularly important if the app in question will be doing something like managing some of your most sensitive information, scanning your inbox, or handling your connection to the web.

What does the privacy policy say?

Twitter privacy policy
Wow, even photos of privacy policies are boring. David Nield

Ah, the privacy policy. Those terms and conditions we all skip through and accept just to get on with playing the latest game or testing the latest viral app. If you really want to know how an app operates, look at its privacy policy—especially the details on what data it’s collecting and how it uses it.

Even if you choose to be responsible and actually read privacy policies, keep in mind that—as with any legal contract—they can be hard to read and full of complicated language. They may also be broad and vague, which makes it hard to understand exactly what’s happening to your data.

Sometimes you come across excellent privacy policies, though, which should bolster your trust in an app. Look for what organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are saying about an app’s privacy policies. Another useful resource is the browser add-on Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, which classifies the terms and conditions of different platforms from very good (class A) to very bad (class E). And if a policy gives you any reason to pause, it might be worth backing away.

Are you getting something of value in return?

Don’t be lazy when it comes to registering with new apps or services—the fewer you’re connected to, the better, from both a privacy and security standpoint. If there’s something you really, really want to sign up for, it might be worth waiting a day or a week before taking the plunge, just to be sure you actually need it in your life.

After all, is your life going to be significantly improved by seeing what you’re going to look like in 40 years? Do you absolutely have to know which celebrity you resemble most? Are you getting access to a new and different service that you don’t already have in another app?

While the benefits of a free Gmail account or a free Instagram account are clear in terms of being able to keep in touch with the world at large, the value of other websites and apps isn’t always clear-cut, so tread carefully.

David Nield
David Nield

David Nield is a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.