Verizon's new search app questioned by critics

Verizon is preparing to roll out a new search app across its Android device portfolio to help users find content across their various apps. Some critics initially slammed the app as spyware that allows the carrier to access all kinds of information about its customers, but it isn't clear that's really the case.

AppFlash, which was developed by the startup Evie, will be “the default experience” on Verizon customers’ Android devices, TechCrunch—which is owned by Verizon—reported this week. Users can search or browse through various listings in AppFlash, then click to open the app to access the content or service they’re looking for.

AppFlash is Verizon’s specific brand of Sidescreen, a new offering from Evie that could be used by other carriers.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was quick to slam the software before withdrawing its post.

“With this spyware, Verizon will be able to sell ads to you across the internet based on things like which bank you use and whether you’ve downloaded a fertility app,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said. “Verizon’s use of ‘AppFlash’—an app launcher and web search utility that Verizon will be rolling out to their subscribers’ Android devices ‘in the coming weeks’—is just the latest display of wireless carriers’ stunning willingness to compromise the security and privacy of their customers by installing spyware on end devices.”

The EFF also pointed to Verizon’s “AppFlash Privacy Policy,” which stated the app can collect information such as mobile numbers, device identifiers, device type, operating system and the features, apps and services customers use on their phones. AppFlash also gleans location information and contacts, and the information can be shared with Verizon properties such as AOL and Millennial Media.

The EFF walked back those statements in an updated post, however, saying it was reconsidering its stance while it "investigated further."

News outlets have derided Verizon’s new app as well. The Next Web echoed the EFF’s spyware charge, and The Verge called it bloatware that could be used to “deliver some very personal information to advertisers,” including, potentially, health conditions and financial status.

Verizon, for its part, said it is merely testing AppFlash to make it easier for users to navigate their phones. The carrier said the test is being done on a single model—the LG K20 V—and users can opt in to access the app.

“Or you can easily disable the app,” Verizon spokesperson Kelly Crummey said via email. “Nobody is required to use it. Verizon is committed to your privacy.”

Regardless, it’s worth noting that the AppFlash news has surfaced the same week the U.S. House voted to roll back privacy rules for internet service providers, sending the measure on to President Donald Trump. The rules, which were put in place by the FCC last August, but had yet to take effect, essentially prohibit wireless carriers and other ISPs from sharing customers’ personal data with third parties without users’ consent.

Mobile network operators have complained that the rule hampers efforts to monetize information on customers’ behavior via advertising, giving internet-based companies such as Facebook and Google—which don’t actually provide broadband services—an unfair edge.

Meanwhile, carriers are aggressively expanding into digital media and advertising in an effort to offset slowing growth in the U.S. wireless market. Verizon, AT&T and others compile vast amounts of data from their customers that can be used to deliver highly effective—and highly lucrative—targeted advertisements.

Industry insiders said Trump is highly likely to sign the repeal of the FCC’s privacy rules, paving the way for carriers to monetize their customers’ data by sharing it with advertisers. If so, operators will increasingly work to find ways to compile vast amounts of information about their users.

This post and the headline were updated March 31 after the EFF withdrew its initial post.