No, Your Phone Probably Isn't Recording You, Study Concludes

Francisco Seco  AP

Many smartphone users are paranoid that their phone is secretly listening to their conversations in order to serve up targeted ads. But don't get too happy.

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Concluding the research, your mobile apps may not be recording or listening to what you say, but certainly they are keeping an eye on every decision we are making on our smartphone screens. "This can occur without needing any permissions from the user". 17,260 popular Android apps were monitored on 10 Android handsets using an automated program that notes what media files get sent out from each app.

If you think your phone is spying on you, well, you're probably right. The researchers used an automated program to interact with the apps and analysed the traffic generated. This is another limitation of the study, as the bot was not able to perform all human-level activity, like creating usernames and passwords.

Other sub-par practices noted by the researchers included photo-editing apps that processed images in the cloud without notifying users about it in privacy policies and apps that request permissions that they didn't use, opening the door to third-party code that could exploit the generous permissions.

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The year-long study looked at several thousand apps and whether they were secretly using the phone's microphone to record audio.

However, they found something equally unsafe. They did, however, notice that screenshots and video recordings of people's activity in apps were being sent on to third parties without asking for consent. One such example listed was GoPuff - an app that delivers food at odd hours.

"From a set of 17,260 apps, we uncovered few instances of covert recording (i.e. apps taking pictures or videos without users intentionally doing so)", the study authors wrote. The app had no mention of this functionality in its privacy policy. A spokesperson also informed Gizmodo that the AppSee SDK has been removed from GoPuff's Android and iOS apps with the latest update. "Once this issue was brought to our attention we've immediately disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers". However, in this case, both are partly fault.

Indeed, AppSee advertises itself as a way to keep tabs on an app's users. "After reviewing the researchers' findings, we determined that a part of AppSee's services may put some developers at risk of violating Play policy". The results are in - and there's good news and bad news.

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