Study: Smartphones do not overhear users, but perhaps watch them

Scientists have experimentally refuted one conspiracy theory and immediately created a new one.

Photo by David Choffnes (David Choffnes), North-Eastern University

Researchers from Northeastern University in the United States (Northeastern University) spent a whole year to check whether smartphones can secretly eavesdrop on people’s conversations. They did not find any evidence of hidden activation of microphones, but found that smartphones can monitor the actions of users.

Scientists wanted to refute the popular conspiracy theory that social networks and applications “listen” to everything that people say around, and use this information to display targeted advertising. Recently, the network constantly evokes “evidence” in favor of such a theory.

For example, the editor of the publication Vice, as a result of the experiment, came to the conclusion that he was being eavesdropped by the telephone. He talked about cheap T-shirts and plans for five days in a row to return to university, and then saw on Facebook the advertisement of clothes and classes at the school.

Scientists from the Northeastern University conducted their experiment to find out where the truth is. They used 10 Android-smartphones and checked out over 17 thousand of the most popular applications in the Play Market, which were previously given access to the microphone. Among the programs including Facebook itself and about 8,000 applications sharing data with social networks.

Of the 17,260 applications that participated in the study, about 9,000 had access to the camera and microphone, so that in theory they could overhear the owner. Scientists launched an automatic program on smartphones that interacted with applications and recorded the data that they sent to the network.

After a year of research, the scientists found no evidence that the applications secretly activated the microphone: no program sent any audio file to a third-party domain.

We have not found evidence that people’s conversations are secretly recorded. What people really do not seem to understand is that there are many other opportunities to track down everyday life that give third parties the same complete picture of you.

However, the results of the experiment may lead to a new conspiracy theory – it turned out that many applications recorded the screen during use and sent this information to third parties.

For example, the application for ordering fast food GoPuff recorded when the user interacted with it, and then forwarded information to the domain associated with the mobile analytics company Appsee. The screen could contain confidential data, for example, the zip code of the device owner.

However, Appsee does not hide that they record user actions: on the company’s website it is claimed as one of the advantages of the platform. But researchers were not bothered by the fact of surveillance, but the fact that users could not be aware of this, because the GoPuff privacy policy did not mention the recording of the screen. After the scientists contacted, an item about this appeared in the document.

In Appsee said that the error was on the side of GoPuff, and the company requires partners to indicate the use of third-party technology and prohibits the collection of any personal data. The representative of the company also noted that users can protect themselves from recording the screen on the official website of Appsee.

Google answered to the scientists that Appsee can put some developers at risk of violating the policy of the Play Market store, and assured that they are already “working with them”. Google policy requires that users be told what data they can collect the application.

Researchers did not begin to state that the results of their work – the truth in the last resort. Smartphones were controlled by an automatic program, not by people, besides they were in a controlled environment.

However, as noted by the publication Gizmodo, the accuracy of advertisements almost certainly did not become a consequence of wiretapping: it is usually just good targeting based on the user’s digital portrait.

Advertisers know what you are talking about, because other people, like you, talk about the same things and buy the same things.

from Gizmodo
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