What can your smartphone reveal about you? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. And users are gravely unaware of how vulnerable they actually are. These convenient devices are such a deeply integrated part of our lives that they are always with us and many of us rarely turn them off. We reach for these devices when we first wake up, bring them with us into the car, and often keep them with us during our most private moments.
From accessing your mail to navigating to a place, managing bank accounts to making purchases- a smartphone can do pretty much everything and all this user information could all be monitored too. Apps could also be transmitting users’ locations and device IDs to third parties without telling the users or getting their permission. “Permissions, though, are only a small part of the Android-app privacy story,” says Guevara Noubir, a professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University. “Android apps can be manipulated to reach inside your mobile phone to track your whereabouts and traffic patterns, all without your knowledge or consent.”
If an Android app wants to access sensitive user information, such as location, it must let the user know. Often permission for such access is buried in the small print of terms-of-use agreements that many users don’t read. “Android apps present further privacy risks because they automatically have access to key sensors inside the phone that detect the device’s location, movements, and orientation,” explains Noubir.
Android apps present further privacy risks because they automatically have access to key sensors inside the phone that detect the device’s location, movements, and orientation. “In our research we show that an app in fact does not need your GPS or Wi-Fi to track you,” says Noubir. “Just using these sensors, which do not require permissions, we can infer where you live, where you have been, where you are going.”
The way to protect yourself? “You should not install apps that are not familiar to you—ones that you have not investigated,” he says. “Be sure that your apps are not still running in the background when you’re not using them.” He also advises uninstalling apps that you don’t use frequently. “Why keep apps that can access your sensors if you don’t use those apps seriously?” he asks hoping that one day smartphones achieve proper transparency in how user data is collected and handled.