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Thousands Of Apps Caught Recording User’s Screens Without Permission

08 July, 2018, 05:25 | Author: Tara Roberts
  • Research shows Facebook (probably) isn’t listening through your phone

For the a year ago, 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. A group of computer science academics experimented with over 17,000 popular Android apps whether these apps are recording our points or not.

As more users become aware of how their data is accessed and used, app companies will have to better disclose this information, and avoid the reputation hit that Facebook experienced after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This means that when these applications are open they can easily record things from people.

Sorry, conspiracy theorists: They found no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so. "This can occur without needing any permissions from the user", the study reads.

The study had limitations, and so the researchers stopped just short of declaring outright that phones never secretly record anyone. Again, there is no evidence that our phones are spying and recording us at will, but it's still troubling that some apps are sending personal information elsewhere behind the scenes.

And yet the conspiracy theory that apps are listening to your in-person conversations and using them to show ads persists. GoPuff is a delivery app for people who really want junk food fast. In one case, the recording had the customer's zip code.

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"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. After the researchers contacted GoPuff, the company added disclosure of this policy to its privacy policy, and claimed that it removed the API from its latest builds.

"We always appreciate the research community's hard work to help improve online privacy and security practices", a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo.

Google - maker of the Android operating system - said after reviewing the Northeastern researchers' findings it had determined that a part of Appsee's services may put some developers at risk of violating its policies. They captured postcode data from the smartphone while the users were using their application, and the company had not included such data collection activities in their terms and conditions.

In short, the safest thing a phone owner can do is limit the number of third-party apps that can access their microphone. "GoPuff's privacy policy did not notify users their screens could be recorded while using the smartphone app".

Back to the new study, which researchers will present the results of next month at the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium Conference in Barcelona.

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