I-Team: Security experts say smartphone technology raises privacy concerns

Cybersecurity and privacy experts say smartphone technology raises privacy concerns. (WWMT/Matt Loughrin)

The average American checks their smartphone more than 50 times a day, and while some of the privacy risks are well known, others are not. Advancements in technology have led many to suspect phones and other electronic devices may be monitoring their activity.

“We ain't got no privacy nowadays,” said Kalamazoo resident Courtney McKinney. “I can't have a conversation with somebody privately without somebody listening in or knowing what I'm talking about.”

Like many Americans, McKinney said privacy is a major concern when using his phone.

Emilee Rader, an associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University, whose research focuses on digital privacy, said she believes that concern is warranted.

“You’re basically giving up any data that computer systems can collect about you,” Rader said.

According to Rader, the moment you download an application and agree to the terms of service, you are often giving the developers access to information including your location and browsing history.

“That one time that they ask you up front, that’s when you give them permission to do whatever they want basically,” Rader said. “Nobody really reads those things, nobody’s really intended to read those things.”

That personal information is far from the only data your phone and the applications on it can collect.

“Pretty much everything that we say or type can be inferred. There is a possibility that it can be inferred by a third party or an application,” said Shameek Bhattacharjee, an assistant professor of computer science at Western Michigan University.

His area of expertise is cybersecurity and privacy.

Bhattacharjee said it wouldn’t be hard for an app developer to code a program that can listen into your conversations, both verbal and nonverbal, without your knowledge.

“Even if you are not speaking to anyone, if you are typing something, online or offline, there are ways for these sensors in your smartphone to actually infer what you’re writing,” Bhattacharjee said.

Social media companies, including Facebook, have said for years they don’t use microphones to listen into conversations.

Still, Rader said there are often rumors.

“Sometimes these targeted ads are just so targeted you feel like how could the company know that about me if they weren’t listening in on my conversations,” Rader said. “So it’s definitely something people are worried about the possibility of happening.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a joint U.S. Senate committee last year his company is not eavesdropping on users.

During an exchange with Zuckerberg, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, asked, “yes or no, does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?”

Zuckerberg responded, “We do not. Senator. Let me be clear on this. You are talking about the conspiracy theory passed around that we listen to what is going on on your microphone and use that. We do not do that.”

Companies like Facebook have the ability to listen in, but Rader said there’s no reason not to believe their claims.

“There is just so much more detailed information they can get about you by looking at your web browsing history or the things that you like on Facebook,” she said. “They don’t really need the microphone to find out stuff like that, they already have access to the data.”

While social media companies are often the target of outrage over privacy concerns, Rader and Bhattacharjee said free games you can download to your phones are often the biggest offenders.

“The revenue model is your information and your data,” Bhattacharjee said.

There aren’t any federal regulations regarding the technology that can be used to collect your data without your knowledge, but as more research is done, Bhattacharjee said lawmakers need to consider taking action.

“If you think privacy is an issue, then I think these things need to be looked into,” he said.

Rader said there’s always some information you’re going to give up by using a smartphone, but there are some steps you can take, like disabling microphones and location services.

“If the permissions [an app is] asking for don’t really seem like they’re in line with what you’re going to do with the app, then you probably shouldn’t install it, you should just delete it,” Rader said.

With smartphones always close by, consumers, like McKinney, may increasingly have to make the choice between convenience and privacy.

“It just makes you think, don't do nothing that you don't want nobody to know about on your phone no more,” McKinney said.

Threats like microphones listening in are among the biggest privacy concerns, but Bhattacharjee said new potential issues are evolving faster than the solutions.

He said it’s possible for a device to understand what you’re typing on your phone or keyboard from the vibrations it gives off.

"If I’m working on something I usually put my smartphone somewhere inside,” Bhattacharjee said. “That helps because if you are keeping your smartphone in a closed space like this, the audio signals and the keystroke signals they see a lot of distortion and fading.”

He said it’s also possible to see what someone is writing or where they are in a room without their knowledge.

Much like a sonar, Bhattacharjee said you can figure it out based on the disruption in a Wi-Fi signal from their movements.

He said these methods of cybersnooping haven’t been seen publicly yet, but have been created in the research community.

From there, he said, it could be just a matter of time before they’re being used to take your information, without your knowledge.

“If it’s not something that someone has looked into from a policy perspective, it is something that needs to be looked into pretty quickly,” Bhattacharjee said.

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection sent warning letters to app developers who installed software that could use a device's microphones to track television-viewing habits. Those letters note that the apps in question didn't notify consumers the apps could monitor television-viewing habits.

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