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Smart Apps Are Great, But Do They Know Too Much?

This story originally appeared on CNBC

A rising class of apps called smart apps promise to make users' lives easier by essentially acting as personal assistants. Yet, users may be uncomfortable with the amount of personal information required to make them work.

Smart apps learn a user's behavior by collecting data from other applications on a person's phone. Because the smart apps have so much access to data they become contextually aware and create a very personal experience. They can also be proactive, predicting what the user would want to do and then perform the appropriate task.

For example, the Android app Agent can sense when a person is driving. It will read text messages aloud and even send an auto reply to the sender letting them know the driver is busy.

"Eventually, all successful apps will be smart apps," said Mikael Berner, the CEO of EasilyDo, a smart assistant app. "A person needs at least one smart app to bring everything together. We are heading into a world where a person almost can't function productively without an app to help them manage everything that's going on."

Yet, while it's true that virtual assistant apps can be very useful, consumers need to be cautious about what information they are handing over, said Erich Stuntebeck, director of mobility research at AirWatch, a mobile security and device management firm.

"These apps might have access to your email, calendar, contacts,Twitter and Facebook account and so on, meaning attackers now only have to find a way to exploit this single app to gain access to all the data," Stuntebeck said. "Worse yet, a malicious app could masquerade as a legitimate smart app, leading you to hand over your account credentials to the services you use directly to attackers."

There's no question these apps want access to a lot of information.

For example: EasilyDo requests, among other things, the right to scan the content in users' email accounts, contact information, calendar appointments, location information and Facebook account.

The tradeoff, though, is the app can save a person a lot of time. From tracking packages to picking the best route for a commute, the virtual assistant does it all. It can even alert a user to local events that might be of interest.

Other smart apps that request similar access to data and provide comparable services include Google Now, Mynd and Cortana, which is the personal assistant app on Microsoft's Windows Phone.

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Although all of these apps, including EasilyDo, ask for permission before accessing information from other apps, there's still concerns regarding its safety and how its being used.

"Handing over access to that much stuff is kind of scary and that is really going to be true of any smart app, but they need access to data to do their jobs," said Max Wheeler, the CEO of Mynd, a smart calendar and scheduling app.

Wheeler, who likens smart apps to a "memory prosthetic," said that Mynd tries to be as transparent with users as possible to address privacy concerns. One way it does this is by sending users a monthly message reminding them of what information the app has access to and giving them the option to opt out of certain services. He said his company also closely monitors its users' data and deletes data that is not necessary.

EasilyDo takes similar measures to protect its users information, including encrypting data and distributing where its data is stored, Berner said. He added that his company never sells user data and is supported by selling premium services within the app.

Still, regardless of the safety measures smart apps have in place, users are the ones that really are responsible for guarding their information in the end.

"End-users should be aware of the risks of granting a single app permissions and credentials to access other accounts. These risks should be weighed carefully against the benefits that the smart app provides," Stuntebeck said.

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