It’s the smartphone conspiracy theory that just won’t go away: Many, many people are convinced that their phones are listening to their conversations to target them with ads. Vice recently fueled the paranoia with an article that declared “Your phone is listening and it’s not paranoia,” a conclusion the author reached based on a 5-day experiment where he talked about “going back to uni” and “needing cheap shirts” in front of his phone and then saw ads for shirts and university classes on Facebook.
(For what it’s worth, I also frequently see ads for shirts on Facebook, but I’m past the age of the target audience for back-to-school propaganda.)
Some computer science academics at Northeastern University had heard enough people talking about this technological myth that they decided to do a rigorous study to tackle it. For the last year, Elleen Pan, Jingjing Ren, Martina Lindorfer, Christo Wilson, and David Choffnes ran an experiment involving more than 17,000 of the most popular apps on Android to find out whether any of them were secretly using the phone’s mic to capture audio. The apps included those belonging to Facebook, as well as over 8,000 apps that send information to Facebook.
Sorry, conspiracy theorists: They found no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so. Like good scientists, they refuse to say that their study definitively proves that your phone isn’t secretly listening to you, but they didn’t find a single instance of it happening. Instead, they discovered a different disturbing practice: apps recording a phone’s screen and sending that information out to third parties.