Smartphone users have long suspected that certain apps were listening to their conversations to better target advertisements to them. New research from Northeastern University found no evidence that Android apps are tapping your microphone and sending audio without permission—but several are actually sharing screenshots and videos of your app activity with third parties, without your consent.
The researchers analyzed more than 17,000 popular Android apps. Of these, more than 9,000 had permission to access the camera and microphone. While no apps studied activated the microphone and sent out audio without a user prompt, many could access a phone's screen and send that information to third parties.
For example, food delivery app goPuff records what users do on the app, and sends that information to mobile analytics firm Appsee—without making that explicitly clear to users.
SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)
"Our study reveals several alarming privacy risks in the Android app ecosystem," the paper stated. "We have responsibly disclosed confirmed privacy leaks to developers and the Android privacy team, and they took action to remediate the privacy concerns we discovered."
Despite these activities, Android users can take control of what apps they use and what they are permissioned to share. Here's how to access your app permissions, as noted by Wired (these steps may vary depending on which phone you use):
- Open up the Settings app
- Tap the Apps & notifications option
- Tap the app you want to examine
- Tap Permissions to see everything the app can access
- To turn off a permission, tap on it. You might need to tap a confirmation box here as well.
To see a more comprehensive list of permissions, you can tap on the Apps & notifications screen, then tap App permissions. In this window, you can browse apps by the permissions they access, and turn off any you like.
Apps do ask users to set permissions when they are installed. Users should be more careful to select the permissions they are comfortable with at that point as well.
As more users become aware of how their data is accessed and used, app companies will have to better disclose this information, and avoid the reputation hit that Facebook experienced after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The big takeaways for tech leaders:
- Research from Northeastern University found that several Android apps share screenshots and videos of user app activity with third parties, without user consent.
- Android users can adjust their app permissions settings to avoid sharing data with third parties.
- Nine ways to disappear from the internet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Phone apps aren't secretly listening to your calls: But what they do is still 'alarming' (ZDNet)
- Android P: Cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
- Some Android apps are recording and sharing your home screen without your knowledge, study finds (Download.com)
- Android security and privacy starter kit (Download.com)
Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.