They have no visibility. And why? And would Apple allow this? Would Google, Android allow this to happen? So when you came out with this, what was the reaction? So in one sense, this fear is sort of unwarranted. Have developers changed anything since your report came out? Or did they have to? CW : Yes. So there were a bunch of apps using a particular library that was allowing them to record the screen. So when you are in one of these apps, everything would just get recorded and sent to a third party. So we responsibly disclosed that. In the paper, we talk about an app called GoPuff.
GoPuff has since removed that library. And it looks like a bunch of other apps that included this particular library, have also removed it. Or you can just use it sort of generically, like-.
DC : You can think of it as, if you had a problem with your computer and you call tech support, the guy from tech support is probably going to show up, look over your shoulder, as you do the thing that caused a problem. My colleague, Jason Del Rey, is one of the people who said he thought Facebook was spying on him. Great, one of my employees. So what would you say to convince him? And their privacy snafus with the Russians.
CW : Of course, yeah. Facebook is making it too easy to believe this about them.
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But I guess the counter-argument is really that you already give Facebook such a huge amount of information in terms of the things you view and you click on. They can see your browsing history, based on their like buttons. All of that stuff is easy to mine and use for ad targeting.
It would be much more difficult for them to be recording this audio, and then transcribing it and trying to analyze it. DC : And just to clarify, Facebook is spying on us. They get a much richer view by how we interact with Facebook, how we like things, how we click on links, how we browse the internet. So those devices are supposed to only be active when the hotwords are used. But again, of course, there was the example of the Google Home Mini, which was just recording all the time.
CW : So this is another thing that we are actively studying, is these IoT devices. All right, another question.
Stay on target
What have you heard from people who believe in this conspiracy theory, since your study came out? Do they still not believe you, or do they continue to believe their conspiracy theory? Have they argued with you about it? I avoid them like the plague, personally. But nonetheless-. DC : No one has engaged me yet.
And at the same time, we do want to be clear that we looked at 17, apps. We interacted with them automatically for five minutes. And we looked at the most popular apps. And did the app platform developers that you said from some who had been abusing it, but what about Apple and Google who are the principal phone makers? So we reported this to Google.
Google escalated it to their privacy team. We know their privacy team was in contact with many of these app developers to try and clean up the behavior. And Google issued a statement saying that they had taken remediative action. They seem to have done something. It might be nice if they would take a stronger policy stance against some of these things, but they did take our report seriously. Have they ever collected data on clicks, keyboard usage, or program usage?
DC : Great question.
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All right. Have you or your colleagues looked into other forms of digital surveillance? These IoT devices? And talk a little bit about those. CW : Yeah, sure.
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So we actually have a state-of-the-art lab set up like a studio apartment here at Northeastern. It has fully functional internet-connected fridge, washer, dryer, dishwasher, TV, cameras, video doorbell. Just sort of everything you would expect to see in a really smart home. All of these devices are connected to a router where we have full control over all of the network traffic, so we can monitor it. And we also can correlate activities that we do with these IoT devices. So this is an ongoing study. They should be silent. Or someone could hack into it and it listens.
DC : Absolutely. What are you thoughts on this surveillance society? They all upload to the cloud and do all kinds of different data We are in an era of increasing surveillance of ourselves and information that we give out freely to people, correct? DC : Oh yeah. We have more surveillance now than at any point in human history.
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Everything is listening to you in a weird way. DC : Yeah, if you generalize the word from recording my audio to be a little bit more general, like is it recording my keystrokes? Everywhere you visit? Right, so what advice do you give to people who are worried about this? You should be worried about the routine recording of browsing history, app usage, GPS. There are things you can do like changing privacy settings, installing ad blockers and tracker blockers.
Those are the prime threats, and there are mitigations. What should people do if they are reasonably worried?
What are some of the things they can do? I cover my cameras, all of my cameras on all my devices because I just assume that at some point even accidentally, they can be turned on. If you use Firefox on your phone, you can install extensions into it, including ad block. Same thing with iOS. You can download apps from the store that will implement blocking. You should do that. DC : Just sort of more general advice for those who might feel overwhelmed and feel like throwing their phones in the lake: In terms of just practical advice, think twice about an app before you install it.
Do you really need that app? Why is that app free?
What data might it be collecting and is it worth it? DC : Same thing for internet of things devices.
Are your phone camera and microphone spying on you?
Why does this thing have an internet connection, and do you need the things that that device advertises as the reasons why it does? Right, right, well that too, works I have to say. Actually one of my first jobs at the Washington Post I worked nights because I was the low person on the totem pole. Every single night, someone who called me and was wearing tinfoil on their head because they were being attacked by… things, and I actually believed them for much of my early life.
It was a really interesting thing, because this thing has persisted for a long time, this idea of surveillance. DC : In terms of this study, I think the main next step is to figure out what those IOT devices in the home are doing.