Is Your Smartphone Really Listening In To Your Conversations?

Francisco Seco  AP

Francisco Seco AP

Sorry, conspiracy theorists: They found no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so. In some cases, they found, your phone is recording your screen and sending it to third parties. They kept a close eye on the type of files generated by the applications and whether they were sent to an unpredicted party.

Five researchers from Northeastern University in IL, who specialize in computer science, studied more than 17,000 popular Android apps - almost half of which were allowed access to a user's camera and microphone - over the past year.

While the phone itself might not be recording everything going on, the Northeastern University team did find something disturbing: in certain cases, phones can record a user's screen and send that data to interested third parties.

The apps included Facebook and its subsidiaries along with more than 8,000 apps that send information to Facebook. There might be apps that record audio without permission, and may be activated in conditions different from what the study simulated.

Considering these limitations, these researchers found no solid evidence of snooping, and the apps never really acted shady and activated the microphone for recording audio without the user's knowledge. One app in particular sent quite a bit of information to an analytics company.

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As Gizmodo reported, GoPuff (a food delivery startup) recorded video of in-app interactions and forwarded it to a domain affiliated with Appsee, a mobile analytics company.

"On the one hand, this is good news: a very large fraction of apps are not abusing the ability to record media", the study said. This study has played its role to introduce us to the current scenario of problems in user privacy and personal data.

"We always appreciate the research community's hard work to help improve online privacy and security practices", a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo's Kashmir Hill. After being contacted by the researchers, GoPuff updated its privacy policy to specifically mention Appsee being handed over Personally Identifiable Information (PII). The Google Play policy mandates that the app must disclose how it collects user data.

In short, the safest thing a phone owner can do is limit the number of third-party apps that can access their microphone.

NU researchers Elleen Pan, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Christo Wilson and David Choffnes are planning to present their findings at the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium (PETS) in Barcelona in July.

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