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Default Is your Android phone watching you? Study of more than 17,000 popular apps reveals

Is your Android phone watching you? Study of more than 17,000 popular apps reveals 'disturbing practice'
By Jennifer Earl | Fox News

Researchers who set out to investigate whether smartphones eavesdrop on consumers' conversations debunked one conspiracy theory and ended up finding another "disturbing practice."

Five researchers from Northeastern University in Illinois, who specialize in computer science, studied more than 17,000 popular Android apps — nearly half of which were allowed access to a user's camera and microphone — over the past year.

During their study, they did not find any apps, either on Google Play, App China, or Anzhi, that turned on microphones and secretly recorded your conversations. They did, however, discover some may be "watching" your phone activity.

"We empirically studied the behavior these apps using a combination of static and dynamic analysis techniques," the researchers explained in an online statement.

The researchers used an automated system to test the functions and uses of each app using 10 different Android phones, according to Gizmodo. The system monitored whether these apps sent out any information to third parties — and found that they did. The study did not include Apple's iOS operating system.

One of the phones tracked an app called GoPuff, a Seamless-like food delivery app, recording information and sending it to a site affiliated with software company Appsee.

“In this case it appears that Appsee’s technology was misused by the customer and that our Terms of Service were violated,” Appsee CEO Zahi Boussiba told Gizmodo, blaming GoPuff for the error. “Once this issue was brought to our attention we’ve immediately disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers.”

Google Play notes that all apps are required to "post a privacy policy that, together with any in-app disclosures, explain what user data your app collects and transmits, how it’s used, and the types of parties with whom it’s shared."

But that doesn't mean all apps follow the rules. Some apps are open about their ability to perform screen recordings, but they don't all inform a user when their screen is being taped nor do they explain they are sending the information to another party.

"Our study reveals several alarming privacy risks in the Android app ecosystem, including apps that over-provision their media permissions and apps that share image and video data with other parties in unexpected ways, without user knowledge or consent," the researchers said. "We also identify a previously unreported privacy risk that arises from third party libraries that record and upload screenshots and videos of the screen without informing the user. This can occur without needing any permissions from the user."

NU researchers Elleen Pan, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Christo Wilson and David Choffnes are planning to present their findings at the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium (PETS) in Barcelona in July.

Jennifer Earl is an SEO editor for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @jenearlyspeakin.

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