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Android apps secretly record smartphone screens

05 July 2018

As reported by Gizmodo, researchers Elleen Pan, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Christo Wilson, and David Choffnes studied more than 17,000 apps, including ones from Facebook and those that send information to Facebook, to see if any of them were capturing audio via Android phone microphones.

While the study concluded that there was no proof that users' conversations were recorded, over 9,000 apps had the potential to do so thanks to access granted to the camera and microphone.

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Smartphones might not listen to the user's conversations, but they send screenshots and video recordings to third-party apps, reveals a study by computer science academics at Northeastern University. It also noted a lot of apps sent your information to third parties without disclosing it, such as using cloud processing to handle data, which could expose your information to pretty much anybody with the skills to take a look. "This can occur without needing any permissions from the user". This is another limitation of the study, as the bot was not able to perform all human-level activity, like creating usernames and passwords.

However, they found something equally unsafe. Read the privacy policies of apps you download, and stay away from anything that could use recordings of your screen. In one case, they found that GoPuff, a junk food delivery app, was sending screen shots and video recordings of user screens to analytics company, AppSee. Apps often display sensitive information, so this exposes users to stealthy, undisclosed monitoring by third parties. However, AppSee claims that GoPuff should have informed its end-users way beforehand that its data was recorded and sent to us for analytical and performance optimisation purposes.

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In response, Appsee stated that GoPuff was at fault and they have "disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers". However, in this case, both are partly fault. If, for example, a developer hands off its app to a less ethical company, that company can use those permissions without informing you. The app had no mention of this functionality in its privacy policy.

Google responded to Gizmodo for a request for comment on the team's findings, and said, "After reviewing the researchers' findings, we determined that a part of AppSee's services may put some developers at risk of violating Play policy".

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Therefore, this study offers some respite to users who are paranoid that their microphones may be used to snoop into their private conversations. That's the good news.

Android apps secretly record smartphone screens