Has it ever bothered you that, whenever you enter a restaurant or a store, your phone offers you to check in or leave a review, even when your GPS is off? Sure, Google knows where you are, but in fact your apps (and whoever stands behind them) can know much more using the most unexpected tools.
The usual suspects
Most key features of your smartphone require your permission to use them: camera, microphone, video camera, location, and so on. Apps have to ask for this permission, and we all give it without hesitation – we want to use the app, after all. In most cases, apps don’t do anything sinister with this data, but they might sell it to outside advertisers.
1) Location. For instance, the data about stores where you shop and cafes where you take your latte can be used to create personalized ads that target your interests. Customized ads are the future of the advertising industry, and companies will pay good money for personal information about potential clients. If you go to the Privacy section of your phone and check the Location sub-section, you will see a very detailed history of where you have been lately. This helps Google offer you the best routes to places and suggest restaurants, shops, and so on, but in the wrong hands this information could be a real weapon.
2) Camera, too, can provide lots of information on where you are; certain malware apps can masquerade like something else (such as note-taking apps), ask and receive permission to use the camera, and then take pictures without your knowledge, sending them… who knows where?
3) Microphone. If you allow an app to use the mic, it can potentially turn it on at any moment to record what you say. Sure, Google or iPhone turn on the mic and record your search queries for Siri and “Hey Google” – and you can later access these recordings in your account. But imagine how much a crook would learn by listening in to your conversations!
Spyware – good and evil
Yet another way to keep track of what somebody else does on their phone is spyware – apps that often require a physical possession of another person’s phone for a few minutes to install the app and sent screenshots and copies of messages and emails to the person who pays for the subscription. This on the surface may seem like a very dubious idea, but in fact the major spyware apps pursue important, often life-saving goals. For instance, they are often used by concerned parents who feel their children might be in trouble – and there are many cases when such apps prevent teenage suicides, kidnappings, or even rape. On the other hand, an app like that can save a lot of suffering to a spouse who feels that their partner is cheating on them.
The only issue with spyware is to be sure that the app is reliable and honest and doesn’t send the gathered date to anybody else but you. Unfortunately, a lot of apps that purport to be designed for keeping track of children or employees actually serve to steal PINs, passwords, and money. A list of reliable and justifiably popular tracking apps is, actually, extensive.
Spying methods of the future
Apart from location services or camera, which require permissions, your phone has lots of features and sensors that can be used without a permission, since they are not considered dangerous. And yet, in the future such innocent things as accelerometer, barometer, and motion sensors can help advertisers (and criminals) to learn everything about you.
– Accelerometers can transmit data whenever you start or stop moving (such as when you enter a metro train, step off the train, etc.) potentially revealing your itinerary.
– Motion sensors reveal how your phone moves, which happens every time you touch the screen; this can be used to reveal which numbers you press on the touchscreen when entering a credit card PIN, for example, or what you type.
– Barometer – this sensor can be used to determine your altitude – that is, which floor you are on, providing additional information about your location.
– Ultrasonic beacons – these are signals built into some apps and TV ads that help identify one’s location and actions.
As you can see, potential criminals and companies trying to sell you something have a wide arsenal of tricks, which is going to get even wider in the upcoming years. Of course, Google, Apple, and other manufacturers are also busy creating apps that will protect you and prevent you from giving permissions to random services and blocking the data to being sent far and wide. However, the main responsibility is on you: remember that there is no real privacy online – and that your phone is watching and listening every second. Stay alert!