New research at the Northeastern University concluded that they did not find any proof that smartphones or Android apps are recording conversations or activities of the users to serve targeted ads. This comes as a big relief to phone and Android app makers, who have long been accused of recording activities of the users. However, researchers found something equally disturbing and scary, according to Gizmodo.
Is your phone spying on you?
The research was conducted over the past year to test the pervasive conspiracy theory that phones might be recording users’ personal data. Whether or not this is true, some users seem to have experienced activities where they mentioned some product in real life and found similar products appearing on their Facebook page.
In a recent article in Vice, the writer stated that he did a five-day experiment to find the connection between the words he said and the ads received on the handsets. During the experiment, the author talked about going “back to uni” and “needing cheap shirts” only to find university classes and shirts ads on his phone shortly thereafter.
However, there are some unanswered questions. The author took only two attempts a day over five days, so by definition, there is nothing scientific about the test. Also, it is not clear if the author is sure that he had never come across these ads before the experiment – it requires more than an average brain to remember all the ads displayed on a mobile device.
Nevertheless, researchers at the Northeastern University debunked this longtime conspiracy theory that Android apps secretly listen to your words to serve you ads. However, they did find instances where the phone was found recording the screen and sending it to third parties.
Beware of such Android apps
Throughout the research, around 17,260 of the most popular Android apps were monitored, including apps that send information to Facebook. Researchers found that there are apps which video record what’s running on the phone screen and send it to third parties. One such app is goPuff – a junk food delivery app – that used the service of a mobile analytical firm, Appsee, to record its users’ interaction with the app. The videos were then analyzed by Appsee.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Appsee blamed goPuff, saying that their terms of service “clearly state that our customers must disclose the use of a 3rd party technology, and our terms forbid customers from tracking any personal data with Appsee.”
Northeastern University researchers will talk more about their study at the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium Conference in Barcelona next month. It’s not just the ad companies or social media networks that are to be blamed for breaching user privacy. To some extent, users are also responsible as they are not cautious enough before downloading suspicious apps. There are apps that ask for certain user permission, and at that time, it is up to the users to read (and understand) before hitting the allow button.
A new way to spy on you
Though the study introduces a new privacy angle that users must be attentive too, it does suffer from some limitations. The researchers did not claim that the phone never secretly recorded users’ conversations, instead, they just stated that they found no evidence of it. So, the likelihood of social networking giants such as Facebook deploying new ways to harvest the data cannot be ruled out, but there is no such evidence of the same.
Recently, a Facebook patent application was reported by Metro that talked about a technology which would deploy audio in TV ads that people cannot hear, but would be advanced enough to turn on the phone’s microphone. The mic could then be used to record audio and send it to Facebook, which would then use it for targeting ads.
“It is common practice to file patents to prevent aggression from other companies,” Allen Lo, VP and deputy general counsel and head of intellectual property, told Fortune. Lo stated that the patent is directed at future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be monetized by other companies.
Lo assured that the technology mentioned in the product would never be included in any of their products. In the past also, Facebook has applied for patents of the technology that has never been implemented. Thus, such patent applications are no indication of a company’s future product plans.