SAN FRANCISCO — Think your smartphone is spying on you? Researchers at Northeastern University looked at 17,260 Android apps and found evidence of snooping, but not in the way users have speculated.
First, the good news for the paranoid: none of them them surreptitiously turned on a phone’s microphone, recorded audio or sent it to someone without being specifically asked to do so. That puts paid to the conspiracy theory that our phones are always listening to us and using what they hear to target us with ads.
Also, none of the apps turned on the phone’s camera and shot video of whatever it was pointed at.
However, the apps weren’t all benign. The researchers found that a small number of apps sent screenshots and recordings of what users did on the app screen to third parties, presumably to sell that information to marketers or data brokers.
It’s known as “full-session replay technology” and basically allows whoever is getting the file to see everything you did on the app, whether it was playing a game, typing in your address, your shoe size or your credit card number.
While it’s only a tiny number of apps, the tend is disturbing, the researchers say in their paper, which they titled Panoptispy: Characterizing Audio and Video Exfiltration from Android Applications.
The choice of words is telling. The Panopticon was a plan for building prisons created in England in the 1790s by Jeremy Bentham. The prison’s circular design allowed a large number of inmates to be watched by a single guard, without the inmates being able to tell when they were under observation.
It comes from the giant Argus Panoptes, who in Greek mythology had many eyes, some of which were always awake and watching even while the giant slept.
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