These Android Apps Could Secretly Be Recording Your Screen

Is your phone listening to you? Probably not, it turns out -- but you're not safe yet.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For the last year, researchers at Northeastern University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been experimenting on 17,000 of the most popular Android apps to figure out whether any of them are secretly using your phone's microphone to record you. The results are in -- and there's good news and bad news. 

The good news is that the researchers didn't find evidence that any of the apps were hijacking your phone's microphone. The bad news is that a few of them may be recording your phone's screen.

Specifically, the researchers found one concerning app. GoPuff, a junk-food delivery company, was screenshotting and recording user interactions and sending them to a domain affiliated with Apsee, a mobile-app analytics company. The screenshots included a page where users had to enter their zip code. The app had no mention of this functionality in its privacy policy. 

But don't worry: With this app in particular, you're in the clear. After the researchers contacted GoPuff, the company added disclosure of this policy to its privacy policy, and claimed that it removed the API from its latest builds. 

Appsee also removed the app from its service, and deleted the recordings it had. 

“In this case it appears that Appsee’s technology was misused by the customer and that our Terms of Service were violated,” Appsee's CEO told Gizmodo. “Once this issue was brought to our attention we’ve immediately disabled tracking capabilities for the mentioned app and purged all recordings data from our servers.”

That said, Appsee's website actively encourages secret user recordings.

MORE: How Do I Block Unwanted Phone Calls?

Even Google itself is now on the case, since the Google Play store requires that apps disclose to users how their data will be used.

“We always appreciate the research community’s hard work to help improve online privacy and security practices," a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo. “After reviewing the researchers’ findings, we determined that a part of AppSee’s services may put some developers at risk of violating Play policy. We’re working closely with them to help ensure developers appropriately communicate the SDK’s functionality with their apps’ end-users.”

On the one hand, it's encouraging to see that companies are willing to crack down on secret recording. On the other hand, it's hard to be content with a simple addendum to an app's privacy policy, given that -- let's be real -- nobody reads those. 

It's concerning that a note in a privacy policy could allow a malicious app to, perfectly legally, record personal data that you enter, including your billing information and password. 

If you're concerned about apps that do this, the best thing to do is to be aware. Read the privacy policies of apps you download, and stay away from anything that could use recordings of your screen. And if you're really paranoid, just don't grant apps access to your microphone and camera.  

Monica Chin is a writer at The Verge, covering computers. Previously, she was a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she wrote about everything from artificial intelligence to social media and the internet of things to. She had a particular focus on smart home, reviewing multiple devices. In her downtime, you can usually find her at poetry slams, attempting to exercise, or yelling at people on Twitter.