Your smartphone could be recording your screen, claims study

Young man hides smartphone under sheets

The study monitored traffic from 17,260 Android apps using 10 phones and an automated system, keeping an eye out for any unusual activity and, in particular, any suspicious media files being delivered to third parties. Howevever, the study explicitly noted its limitations and doesn't definitively state that phones never record its users.

Apps do ask users to set permissions when they are installed. Of these, more than 9,000 had permission to access the camera and microphone.

Research from Northeastern University found that several Android apps share screenshots and videos of user app activity with third parties, without user consent. A group of researchers at the Northeastern University claim in their study that the apps in your smartphone may not be really listening to you, but they sure are watching what you do.

The researchers were also checking if a media file is being sent from a smartphone, is that shared with an unexpected party or not. It's certainly possible that apps like Facebook are using a new, undiscovered method to do it, but it's hard to imagine how it would escape the researchers' notice.

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The study, which was first reported by Gizmodo, only focused on Android apps, while future research will look at iOS app permissions as well as mobile-app interactions with Internet-of-things devices. One such example listed was GoPuff - an app that delivers food at odd hours. Some apps are open about their ability to perform screen recordings, but they don't all inform a user when their screen is being taped nor do they explain they are sending the information to another party. "Once this issue was brought to our attention we've immediately disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers". After being contacted by the researchers, GoPuff updated its privacy policy to specifically mention Appsee being handed over Personally Identifiable Information (PII). This study has played its role to introduce us to the current scenario of problems in user privacy and personal data.

Quoting a Google spokesperson, the report said that Appsee's services in this case may put some developers at risk of violating Play Store policies. "We're working closely with them to help ensure developers appropriately communicate the SDK's functionality with their apps' end-users". Users should also read through privacy policies as often as they can for sneaky statements about what data is gathered.

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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