7 On Your Side: Is your cellphone spying on you?

Nina Pineda Image
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Is your cell phone spying on you?
7 On Your Side's Nina Pineda looks into the spy-potential on your smartphone.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Smartphones are an indispensable part of our lives, and for many, the devices are the first thing they reach for when they wake up and the last thing they see before going to bed. But you may be surprised to know how much your smartphone knows about you.

A recent survey showed the average smartphone owner uses more than 10 apps each day, up 25 percent year to year. And one expert said some of these apps allow access to your phone's camera or microphone without you knowing it.

Jimmy Spano said his own phone randomly recorded hundreds of moments over the last two years, private moments between a husband and wife. The conversations include room noise at restaurants, and yes, even in the bathroom.

"Huge invasion of privacy," Spano said.

The recording, he said, were made without their knowledge and discovered by accident, in the music folder as "unknown files."

"I don't know who else heard this," he said. "I have no clue what they're doing with it."

But cyber security experts like Gary Miliefsky said it's not all that uncommon.

"You'd be really surprised," he said. "Most of your apps are using everything to collect data on you."

Data is gold for marketing and advertising purposes, which is why many apps ask for access to your contacts, email, texts, photos, microphone and camera. But according to Miliefsky, CEO of Snoopwall, some apps may not seek permission first.

"If this app is spying on you, looking at your microphone and your webcam, if you want to, you can uninstall it," he said.

Miliefsky suggests spring cleaning for your smartphone. On both the iPhone and Android, you can easily see which apps have access to what in your privacy settings. Kill the apps you're not using. Spano had dozens of apps loaded on his phone with the microphone access switched on.

"Forty nine apps had permission to record using his microphone," Miliefsky said.

For apps you want to keep or apps that come on your phone that can't be uninstalled, toggle the microphone off if you don't need it for voice commands. That way, it can't record.

Malware can also introduce secret third-party recording on your phone. Miliefsky said it's possible Spano and his wife's phones were infected with a spying virus. Avoid this by not clicking on unknown email links and not trusting suspicious texts.

"Consumers need to be really intelligent about what apps they put on their phone and what apps they put on their kids phones," Miliefsky said.

He recommends looking for apps that don't allow too many permissions, and read each app's privacy policy carefully. You'll see everything you're giving permission to access in the fine print. The carrier, Verizon, and the phone maker, Samsung, both said neither the phone nor the service make unauthorized recordings of their customers, but both are investigating to determine what led to the tapings.

Samsung corporate statement:

"Samsung takes privacy very seriously. We do not record conversations. Apps on mobile phones provide users with the ability to activate the microphone on their device based on their preferences. We have reached out to Mr. Spano to learn more about his and his wife's experience and to understand which third-party apps the Spanos allowed access to the microphone on their phones."

Verizon corporate statement:

"We take customer privacy seriously and are working to determine the cause of this issue. At this time, we have concluded the issue is not with Verizon's security or networks. We reached out to the customer to address his concerns and assist with managing his mobile applications."


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