Research claims some mobile apps are secretly recording your screen

It’s a conspiracy theory that’s been nurtured for a long time: someone mentions taking a holiday in the vicinity of their phone and the next thing you know, they’re being shown ads about flights and hotel accommodation on Facebook. 

People have believed that their phones have secretly been listening to them to gather data for targeted advertising, building a myth that a bunch of computer science academics at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, decided to look into.

While they found no evidence to suggest that phones are doing any eavesdropping on conversations, what they found instead was just as creepy.

A whole new conspiracy

The year-long study looked at several thousand apps and whether they were secretly using the phone’s microphone to record audio. 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. The apps included Facebook and over 8,000 apps that send information to the social media giant.

As Gizmodo reports, there wasn’t a single instance when the apps turned on the phone’s microphone or sent out any audio files. Instead, some apps were making screen recordings and sharing those with third parties.

As an example, Gizmodo cites GoPuff – a junk food delivery app – recording user interactions with the app and sending them to a mobile analytics company called Appsee.

While it might be common practice for developers to use analytics companies to monitor and improve app performance, GoPuff’s privacy policy makes no mention of it. When the researchers contacted the developer, GoPuff reportedly updated its privacy policy to specifically mention Apsee [sic] being handed over Personally Identifiable Information (PII).

The scientific method

Like all good scientists, the research team has admitted that the study has its limitations and makes no definitive claim that apps may never secretly eavesdrop; just that there was no evidence of that happening. 

The academics admit that automated systems can’t replicated human interactions, so results may vary when used by a real person. And, unlike humans, the program is unable to sign into apps and could well have missed some audio files processed locally on the device that were sent out.

Either way, we know it’s possible that apps like Facebook can find ways and means of accessing user information, and this study may just further justify the current social climate around issues of personal data and user privacy.

[Via Gizmodo]

Sharmishta Sarkar
Managing Editor (APAC)

While she's happiest with a camera in her hand, Sharmishta's main priority is being TechRadar's APAC Managing Editor, looking after the day-to-day functioning of the Australian, New Zealand and Singapore editions of the site, steering everything from news and reviews to ecommerce content like deals and coupon codes. While she loves reviewing cameras and lenses when she can, she's also an avid reader and has become quite the expert on ereaders and E Ink writing tablets, having appeared on Singaporean radio to talk about these underrated devices. Other than her duties at TechRadar, she's also the Managing Editor of the Australian edition of Digital Camera World, and writes for Tom's Guide and T3.