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.
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.
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Sharmishta is TechRadar's APAC Managing Editor and loves all things photography, something she discovered while chasing monkeys in the wilds of India (she studied to be a primatologist but has since left monkey business behind). While she's happiest with a camera in her hand, she's also an avid reader and has become a passionate proponent of ereaders, having appeared on Singaporean radio to talk about the convenience of these underrated devices. When she's not testing camera kits or the latest in e-paper tablets, she's discovering the joys and foibles of smart home gizmos. She's also the Australian Managing Editor of Digital Camera World and, if that wasn't enough, she contributes to T3 and Tom's Guide, while also working on two of Future's photography print magazines Down Under.