Is your smartphone spying on you?

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Is your smartphone spying on you?
Is your smartphone spying on you?

For a few years now, all smartphones sold in the United States have been required to be GPS-trackable, ostensibly for lawful intercept purposes (though there's some vigorous debate from privacy advocates whether that's always the case).

That's nothing new. But with a recent rash of ever-deeper-probing apps hitting the streets, could your phone be co-opted in some other way to gather information about you?

The answer is yes, but the circumstances vary. If law enforcement agencies get a court order, a more traditional wiretapping scenario can be used whereby access to your conversations is achieved for later use in court if it helps their case.

But what about when surveillance wades into legal gray areas: when surveillance techniques and/or software enable you to be spied on without your knowledge?

With the meteoric rise in the popularity of smartphones, there has been a correspondingly steep rise in the amount of apps that can do nifty things on your mobile device -- things like tune your guitar, find a nearby Italian restaurant, or locate the cheapest gas station near you.

To do many of the things you've grown to appreciate, your apps have access to information, such as your location. They also have access to your contacts (potentially), your usage history, and your always-on network connections.

It's no surprise that parents are loading up their kids' smartphones with tracking apps, in case their little cherubs aren't where they say they are, and the grown-ups want a way to check up on them.

But very similar technology could be used to check up on you, and you may not necessarily know what it's up to. For instance, a popular app for the Android platform claims to help track wayward spousal activity by tracking down voice conversations, location, and call history -- all tasks previously reserved for private investigators sipping stale coffee while staked out all night outside the target's apartment.

Not anymore! Now there's an app for that.

What if you shut off your phone? That's no guarantee you can't be tracked. In years past, the FBI successfully prosecuted a crime boss based on a conversation recorded via his phone when it was “switched off.” The problem is that it's really tough to completely switch some smartphones off -- devilishly tough in some cases. You could pop the battery out, right? Well, on many iPhone and Android models, there really isn't a simple way to do that.

And of course there are malicious apps that record your activity, in some cases recording the information you use in financial transactions and then spiriting the information out over the wireless network without you even noticing -- that is, until you get your bank statement a month later and notice strange purchases overseas in locations you've never visited.

I have a friend who refuses to get any modern phones because he's deliberately trying to opt out of mobile devices that have the ability to always know where he is. But, then, he isn't a Twitter junkie either, so it works for him. He says he's going analog in a digital world.

Would that work for you? Maybe not, but it's getting increasingly difficult to fit into a technology-driven world and still retain your anonymity. If you want to give it a shot, try limiting the amount of time your network services are enabled to only when you need them. Also, restrict which apps you load to just what you really need. Using the “less is more” approach to apps will help.

It might also be a good idea to install security software that tells you when apps go rogue.

Of course, you could always just use a landline phone to call people, but that's just way too old-fashioned for most of us these days.

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