Too Smart? Your Cellphone Is Spying On You But You Can Make It Stop

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) - Have you ever had that feeling that your smartphone is getting a little too smart and now spying on you?

You have a conversation near your cellphone about a product, or interest that you’ve never searched before and almost immediately ads for it start popping up on the phone and all other devices it’s linked to through the cloud.

“Oh yes, for sure, a lot,” said Terrance Duffy of Cleveland.

Duffy and his friends were seeing it happen so often they decided to test their phones.

“Me and my friends actually test it a lot,” said Duffy. “Like we talk about random stuff and see what happens, like I remember one time we actually talked about diapers and an ad for diapers popped up, yeah."

You might think it’s a coincidence or paranoia but, experts say, it’s neither.

The phenomena is real, and has to do with “data mining” linked to the apps you download onto the smartphone.

“One of the permissions you can give is access to the microphone to record audio, how that gets translated into targeted ads isn’t completely clear, but certainly apps can be given that permission,” said Brian Ray, Law Professor and Director of the Cyber Security and Privacy Protection Center at Cleveland Marshall College of Law. “All apps are doing it on a scale that most of us have no clue about.”

Ray says some more aggressive apps will try to access everything from your camera to text messages, contacts, location tracking and even emails.

And it’s currently entirely legal.

“When you’re clicking yes to the privacy policy, the way the law is structured in the U.S. now is you just have to say yes and that’s good enough; that’s consent,” said Ray.

He says all of the data gathered on you from the different sources is then bought, sold, and analyzed for patterns so they can sell you something.

Ray says it’s impossible, at this point, for anyone to fully extricate themselves from that system, especially with the symbiotic relationship between apps and social media sites.

According to Ray, these steps will help minimize the threat and protect your privacy:

Step 1: Clear your phone of all frivolous apps.

Step 2: Carefully read the privacy policies of the apps you keep.

Step 3: Go to your phone settings, and check each app individually to see what they’re accessing. Turn off anything that makes you uncomfortable, like the camera, microphone or location tracking. You can also limit access to only when the app is in use/live.

Step 4: Check all of your social media sites to see which apps are tracking you through those accounts. For example with Facebook, click on settings, then “Apps and Websites.” All of the apps that are listed as “active” are potentially data mining your account.

Step 5: In your settings, check “do not block do not track” for apps, email, and social media sites.

Step 5: Periodically check the settings, especially after any systems updates and never sync accounts or log into an app via email or a social media.

Ray says some more extreme steps you can take include getting a “virtual private network” that essentially continually scrambles your information. You can also download the “Privacy Badger” which will block invisible trackers.

“However, it can make life more difficult, because certain things won’t work and you have to remember to turn it off,” said Ray. “So it’s a trade-off.”

You might lose some functionality but Ray says it’s important for everyone to be vigilant, because what’s happening now is just the start of what’s to come.

“What apps will gather on you now will look modest compared to where we’re headed,” said Ray. “And the burden is on you to try and figure it out.”

He also recommends reading this detailed research blog posted and conducted by the Symantec cybersecurity software company.

They analyzed the top 100 apps for Android and iOS as listed on Google Play and Apple to see which were mining the most information on users.

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