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Mobile Spies: Over Half of the 17,000 Most Popular Android Apps Can Spy On You


last yearBusy4 min read

In an age where your personal data is "conveniently" stored on a device you interact with each day, privacy should be something that is taken seriously. But, we don't realize what we are carrying with us and all the sensitive data it holds.

Smartphones hold our usernames, passwords and even credit card numbers or others important information about our lives. When we install apps on our phones, we grant many of them access. But what are we granting access to? We might think we know, but are we really reading the terms anf fine print of what they have access to do on our phones?

Sources: pixabay, pixabay

A team of computer scientists published a study in Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies where they concluded some apps are secretly taking screenshots (even video) and recording what you type. Your activity is then being sent to themselves or third parties. Your passwords can be recorded as you type, before they turn into black dots.

Lead author of the paper, Elleen Pan, said "[c]oming into this project, I didn't think much about phone privacy and neither did my friends." But she has since found reason for concern as she was surprised by what was uncovered. They thought they were looking for a needle in a haystack and wouldn't find anything. But they found several needles in the end.

The study looked at over 17,000 of the most popular apps on Android. But these privacy breaches on Andoird don't mean that other phone operating systems don't have the same vulnerabilities. We're giving access to apps whether it's an Android, iOS or Windows OS. 9,000 of the over 17,000 apps had the potential to take screenshots.

There was no evidence of recorded conversations as has been alleged by some. Not a single app activated the microphone during their automate dtesting. But they did find something worse than your boring conversations being recorded. Think about it: is having your conversations accessed by others more damaging to your life than your apps or financial passwords that can be used to defraud you?

The privacy breaches in these apps is benign, say the researchers, but that doesn't mean they will stay that way. Your phone's privacy window can be exploited for profit. A trusted app can be sending a third party your zip codes, as was found in one case. Maybe you don't care about that. But another app could be sending your credit card numbers.

One case found "the app took video of the screen activity and sent that information to a third party". The GoPuff food delivery app sent the data to a data-analytics firm called Appsee. No nefarious activity was detected. Developers often take user information to help them debug issues or improve user experience. This doesn't mean a malicious app wouldn't use the privacy access to to steal information and profit form it.

The microphone or the camera aren't the areas to be concerned about. Pointless picture or conversations aren't that damaging. The spying that was uncovered is potentially more damaging, and there is no easy way to close this privacy opening.

Google requires developers to disclose how they are collecting and using users' information. But most people don't read the legal agreements. Accepting the policy just means that a company is shielded from a lawsuit since someone already accepted the terms of use. To close the privacy window, the researchers say phone companies would need to redesign their operating systems, which they see as unlikely to happen.

Do you have a lot of apps on your phone? Have you ever read what access you have granted them?

Thank you for your time and attention. Peace.


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