Published: Thu, July 05, 2018
IT&Software | By Alfonso Woods

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

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

Lo and behold, an ad pops up as you're mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed trying to sell you discount flights to Havana - and this is before you've done any online research into the trip. A group of researchers at the Northeastern University claim in their study that the apps in your smartphone may not be really listening to you, but they sure are watching what you do.

For the previous year, researchers at Northeastern University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been experimenting on 17,000 of the most popular Android apps to figure out whether any of them are secretly using your phone's microphone to record you. Of course, no app developer would be dumb, or arrogant, enough to admit this, so a team at Northeastern University spent a year downloading and testing thousands of apps to see just what information they sent out. The theory has become so popular because users frequently say that they have conversations in real life mentioning a product, only to have an ad for that product appear on Facebook later. This included any app sending information to social media behemoth Facebook. "This can occur without needing any permissions from the user", the study reads. Over 9,000 apps under scrutiny had permission to access the phone's camera and microphone.

The study had limitations, and so the researchers stopped just short of declaring outright that phones never secretly record anyone.

Even Google itself is now on the case, since the Google Play store requires that apps disclose to users how their data will be used.

One of the phones tracked an app called GoPuff, a Seamless-like food delivery app, recording information and sending it to a site affiliated with software company Appsee.

At no point did the researchers see an app activate the microphone to record a conversation or send an audio file without prompt.

Meanwhile, as per the report, Appsee believes that this is a slip-up on the part of GoPuff. If, for example, a developer hands off its app to a less ethical company, that company can use those permissions without informing you. That's the good news.

"Taken together, our study reveals several alarming privacy risks in the Android app ecosystem", the study said.

In response, Appsee stated that GoPuff was at fault and they have "disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers". After being contacted by the researchers, GoPuff reportedly updated its privacy policy and removed the AppSee SDK.

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