Academics Investigate the Age-Old Question: Is Your Phone Secretly Spying on You?

July 20, 2018 - 4 minutes read

It’s a common belief, especially after the National Security Administration’s scandal with Edward Snowden, that the U.S. Government is spying on its citizens. Tech companies don’t do much to help this case, either. For example, many people have claimed that Facebook showed them ads for dog kennels when they have no dogs — but they did happen to chat about petsitting one recently. Feel familiar?

But here’s the twist: researchers at Boston-based Northeastern University recently found that this paranoia might not be about what’s being heard as much as what’s being seen.

Not the Results You’d Expect

The five researchers, Christo Wilson, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Elleen Pan, and David Choffnes, ran an intense experiment using 17,000 of Android’s most popular apps. They were specifically testing if our phone’s microphone was being activated to record audio.

To be clear, yes, the study included Facebook, apps owned by Facebook, and an additional 8,000 apps that send collected data to Facebook. While they found that apps only record you on the mic when given permission, the study also concluded that apps record a phone’s screen and send those images to third parties.

For example, when the automated machine that cycled through all of the 17,000+ apps put some information into food delivery app GoPuff, the snack they wanted, as well as personal information like their zip code, were sent as a recorded video to mobile analytics company Appsee.

Who’s Held Accountable, and Who’s Profiting?

It’s obvious that no one explicitly consented to this; when’s the last time an app asked you for permission to record your activity for analytics and ad-serving purposes later on? When GoPuff was alerted to this, they revised their Privacy Policy. But the question remains: how many other apps are recording us and behaving in questionable ways to make a profit off of our information?

The Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store are partially at fault because of their lenient policies in checking over apps before publishing them. But mobile app developers are also abusing features that their development environments and the aforementioned policies afford them by not explicitly notifying their users about all of the “features” they’ve built into the app.

It’s safe to say that consumers should not trust apps to reveal everything they’re recording or tracking. Speaking of which…

Actually — We’re Part of the Problem

Consumers share some blame as well. We don’t ask enough questions, we don’t do enough of our own independent research, and we certainly don’t think twice about granting an app all of the permissions it claims it needs.

And while the study points out that we’re probably not being recorded, there is something new to stress about. Choffnes says, “We didn’t see any evidence that people’s conversations are being recorded secretly. What people don’t seem to understand is that there’s a lot of other tracking in daily life that doesn’t involve your phone’s camera or microphone that give a third party just as comprehensive a view of you.”

Have you ever experienced any mobile app espionage? Technology’s opened up many doors in recent years, but this is one that we can probably all agree should have remained closed. For now, all we can do is be cautious. Because if you gaze long into the mobile app, the mobile app could be gazing back at you.

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