We’ve all heard spooky stories of people seeing ads on their smartphones for items they had just mentioned in real-life conversation. Is Instagram listening to us? Can Facebook hear everything we say? Researchers at Northeastern University wanted to dive into the conspiracy theory headfirst to see if our phones are really spying on us — and what they discovered might give you pause. They found that although our smartphones aren’t listening to us, they’re probably taking screenshots and videos of our in-app activity.
According to Gizmodo, Northeastern University computer scientists ran a study of over 17,000 Android apps to test the Twilight Zone-like theory that our phones are always listening. Although they can’t definitively say that our phones aren’t recording audio through our microphones, the researchers found no evidence within the year they ran their study of any app activating the microphone without being prompted to do so.
But — and this is a big but — the researchers did notice something pretty creepy while they were playing around with those 17,000+ apps. Although no audio recording was being sent to third parties from the over 9,000 apps that had permission to access a phone’s microphone and camera, video and screenshots of user activity were sent to third-party domains.
Some of those screenshots included pages where addresses and other personal information were being entered into the app.
This information was sent to mobile analytics companies like Appsee, which discloses publicly that it captures in-app data to send to companies for research. But researchers noted that some apps did not disclose to their users that information and activity was being recorded.
If this information were to end up in the wrong hands, private messages, passwords, and swaths of personal information could be at risk of being hacked and/or stolen.
What’s more, the researchers could not solidly confirm that apps aren’t listening in as well. The study was conducted using an automated program rather real human activity, which could have impacted the results. And the phones were isolated for the majority of the study and therefore weren’t around steady conversation.
But conversation tracking or no, apps are still pulling information from your in-app activity. Whether via screenshots, video, photos, or just reviewing your click history, third parties can and do collect information to tailor ads based on your activity. We’re thoroughly creeped out.