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May Gurney Integrated Services : La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Jourdan Vian column

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01/21/2017 | 01:11am CET

Jan. 20--A new photo app swept the nation this week, but don't be tricked into joining the craze.

Sure, it might be fun to snap a pic and make yourself look like a Japanese cartoon character, with glowing skin, giant eyes and floating cartoon bubbles talking about how you are "oh, so cute." However, I urge you resist the urge to download Meitu, which made the jump to international fame this week as it went viral in the U.S. and U.K., garnering millions of downloads.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a selfie, and if you want to spend your time taking silly photos of yourself and adding weird filters to them, please be my guest. Despite my early trepidation and initial refusal to climb aboard the SnapChat train, my curmudgeonly self eventually downloaded it, and I now enjoy sending photos of myself as an extraterrestrial as much as the next person (Just don't send me a face swap. Gross).

However, selfies should not be enjoyed at the expense of personal information.

Meitu is a bit more sinister than the SnapChat app beloved by many a U.S. teen. The free app, which has been available in China since 2008, collects so much personal information, it makes Facebook and Google look like they respect your right to privacy.

The list of things Meitu asks for to (which is long and most of us don't know what half of it means) include:

* retrieve running apps

* approximate location (network-based)

* precise location (GPS and network-based)

* read phone status and identity

* read the contents of your USB storage

* modify or delete the contents of your USB storage

* take pictures and videos

* view Wi-Fi connections

* receive data from Internet

* view network connections

* change system display settings

* full network access

* change your audio settings

* run at startup

* reorder running apps

* control vibration

* prevent device from sleeping

For those of you who aren't exactly tech-savvy, some of those are typical. Access to your phone's camera, microphone, network connections and location are pretty standard for every form of social media these days.

To quote a Thursday article in Wired, "It's normal for apps to need access to a variety of data and functions on a smartphone so they can run properly and deliver their service. But responsible apps ask for the fewest number of 'permissions' possible so they don't have access to anything they don't absolutely need."

When it comes to modifying storage, preventing the device from sleeping and running immediately when your phone turns on, I'd start to get concerned. Then I read what it means to "read phone status and identity" and got worried. Those types of permissions allow the app to track you and your device wherever you go on the internet, which for me includes a banking app, my credit card's website and a whole bunch of places I go to pay bills. While most of those have their own security, I'm not signing up to share that information with anyone.

Keep in mind that it takes all of this data and sends it to remote servers in China. I wouldn't want anyone to have that much of my information, much less an unknown business in a foreign country.

While I'm aware that most of my readers aren't exactly in danger of downloading an app to anime-fie their faces, it's a good reminder to be a bit more wary when it comes to what we download to those computers in our pockets we occasionally use to call people.

Free apps always come with a cost. As security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski said on Twitter Thursday, "If the app is free, chances are it's your tracking data that's making somebody money."

It might be mostly benign, like how Facebook uses your "likes" to provide information to advertisers, but it won't always be.

So what can the non-tech-savvy people do to protect themselves? Mostly, just do a little research. Look up the developer of any free apps, especially anything that wants access to your Wi-Fi network or data, and don't download anything without verifying that the company that developed it is above-board.

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(c)2017 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)

Visit the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) at www.lacrossetribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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