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Is your smartphone spying on you?

Good Housekeeping UK logo Good Housekeeping UK 31/07/2019 Carrie-Ann Skinner

Smartphones, and other smart devices, have had their fair share of bad press recently, with claims they are capable of monitoring calls and even snooping on our face-to-face conversations.

Why would anyone want to listen in as you chat about what you watched on TV last night or discuss what to cook for dinner? Just as information about our internet searches or the websites we visit can be used to target us with online ads, the theory goes that keywords collected from our conversations could also be passed on to advertisers.

Video: How to use your smartphone as a remote control for any IR device (Rumble)


The GHI investigates

So, could our smartphones be spying on us? We decided to put this theory to the test. Our researcher set up two new smartphones (one iPhone and one Google Android) and added the Google, Facebook and Instagram apps, giving them access to the microphones on the phones (access isn't allowed by default but if you post a Facebook Live story or an Instagram story you have to grant the microphone access).

Over the course of two weeks, we made several mentions within ‘earshot’ of the phones of a make-up brand, a kitchen appliance and a holiday destination we'd never searched for online.

Our verdict? In this instance, there was no evidence that these three apps were monitoring conversations for keywords, and using this information to serve up targeted ads. In fact, the only adverts we did see were based around items we'd been searching for online.

Protect your personal information

a woman holding a cell phone © Photo by Rafa Elias - Getty Images One study by researchers in the US showed that some Android smartphone apps did collect information from users. But instead of accessing the phone’s microphone to eavesdrop on conversations, the apps were much more interested in collecting information about what appeared on the phone’s screen.

a man sitting on a sofa: Blonde woman lying on sofa, using smartphone at home © Westend61 - Getty Images Blonde woman lying on sofa, using smartphone at home Some of the apps in the study collected photos from the user’s phone or used the phone’s camera to record video clips of screen activity. This showed what the user of the phone bought or searched for online, and even recorded their postcode.

GHI TIP: Turn off Ad Personalisation in your Google Account Settings, so your online activity and information shared with Google and the apps you use your Google account to sign-in with, are not used to personalise adverts.

Giving apps permission

Smartphone users in the UK have an average of between 60 and 90 apps on their phones, which means there’s potentially quite a lot of information that’s being gathered about each of us. Whether or not you’re bothered by the thought that the apps on your smartphone are collecting information about you, it’s good practice to check what access you’ve granted to the apps you’ve already installed.

Most apps will ask for personal information such as your name and email address, and many need access to certain features on your phone to do what they are designed to do. A weather app, for example, will need to know your location.

A photo-editing app may need access to your phone’s camera. Some, though, may ask to tap into your calendar, your photos, or even your calls and contacts when they don’t really need to. Find out exactly what each app on your phone has access to in the phone’s Settings menu.

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Nervous young woman using smart phone © Jamie Grill - Getty Images Nervous young woman using smart phone On an iPhone, go to Settings, select Privacy, then tap on one of your phone’s features in the list that appears – the Camera, for instance. You’ll then see a list of the apps that have requested access to this feature. Use the slider buttons to select which ones can have access and which ones can’t. On an Android device, choose Apps, Permissions and again select the specific feature and use the slider to revoke access.

And next time you want to download an app, check its privacy policy first. This should tell you what data the app will collect about you, how the company that makes the app will store that information and who it will be shared with. If you don't like what you read, or if an app doesn't have a privacy policy, it's best avoided.

Gallery: Now is the worst time to buy a new smartphone (Business Insider)


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