Paranoia that our cellphones are secretly allowing corporations or even governments to track our every move has been around since, well, the moment cellphones hit store stands. But given recent concerns about how apps treat users' personal and private information, it's no surprise there's been a resurgence of concern about whether your smartphone is listening to you. To that end, there's good news and bad news. The good news: according to computer science academics at Northeastern University, your smartphone probably is not eavesdropping on your conversations. However, the bad news is these researchers found evidence of a boatload of apps recording what's happening on a user's phone screen and sending that information to third parties, Gizmodo reported.
The researchers tested more than 17,000 apps and thankfully found "no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so," according to Gizmodo. This may come as a relief to folks who see ads for, say, mac and cheese, mere minutes after having an IRL conversation about wanting mac and cheese for lunch. But the researchers may have found a potential explanation for why you get these kinds of ads anyway — and it's sneaky as heck.
The researchers set up 10 Android phones loaded with popular apps and simulated usage with an automated program, then examined the data collected to see if the apps had sent any media files out to third parties, "particularly when they were sent to an unexpected party," Gizmodo reported.
The findings: Out of the 17,260 apps the team tested, more than 9,000 "had permission to access the camera and microphone and thus the potential to overhear the phone's owner talking about their need for cat litter or how much they love a certain brand of gelato," according to Gizmodo. But considering users are required to give apps permission to access their camera and mic, that isn't as much of a bombshell discovery.
What is a big deal, though, is the fact that apps were taking screenshots and recording videos of people's phone screens and sending those recordings to third parties, as the researchers found. "For example, when one of the phones used an app from GoPuff, a delivery start-up for people who have sudden cravings for junk food, the interaction with the app was recorded and sent to a domain affiliated with Appsee, a mobile analytics company," Gizmodo reported. Most notably, "The video included a screen where you could enter personal information — in this case, [the user's] zip code."
Boussiba added that Appsee's terms of service "clearly state that our customers must disclose he [sic] use of a 3rd party technology, and our terms forbid customers from tracking any personal data with Appsee." According to Gizmodo, in response to findings, Appsee disabled GoPuff's tracking capabilities and purged GoPuff's information from its servers. A Google Play spokesperson told Gizmodo, "After reviewing the researchers’ findings, we determined that a part of AppSee's services may put some developers at risk of violating Play policy."
But though these issues are apparently being addressed now, users have potentially been using apps that screen-grab and send screen recordings to third parties with no notice, possibly without even including mention of that capability in their terms of service. While an app recording a user's zip code is eerie, if you think of all the things we do on our phones, from mobile banking to chatting with friends and family to taking private photos, the idea of apps being able to record what's going on on your phone is truly unsettling.
Gizmodo reported that researchers on the project weren't willing to say with total, 100 percent certainty that our conversations aren't also being secretly recorded in the same way screen captures were, but in examining the media sent out to third parties, they couldn't find any evidence of audio clips being recorded and packaged up to help with ad targeting.
One researcher, David Choffnes, told Gizmodo that one reason ads seem so on point may be the fact 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" as that party would get from recording your conversations.
Despite no evidence of audio being secretly recorded, given the researchers' other findings, it's pretty understandable if you want to hang on to your tin hat when it comes to this particular conspiracy theory.