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SAN DIEGO — People love their smartphones, but did you know they could be spying on you? A recent study by computer scientists from New York University and UC San Diego uncovered the hidden dangers of spyware apps. These apps are not only difficult to detect, but they can also leak your sensitive information without your knowledge. The team warns that it’s important to be aware of this issue and take steps to protect yourself and your privacy.

“This is a real-life problem and we want to raise awareness for everyone, from victims to the research community,” says Enze Alex Liu, the first author of the paper, in a university release.

Spyware apps are often marketed as tools to monitor children or employees, but they can also be used by abusers to secretly spy on their partners. These apps are designed to record everything that happens on a victim’s device, including text messages, emails, photos, and even phone calls. The abusers can then access this information remotely through a web portal. The use of spyware apps has been on the rise, with a significant increase in their usage in recent years.

To find out if your device has been infected with a spyware app, you can check your privacy dashboard and the list of all apps in your device’s settings. However, these apps are specifically designed to remain hidden, making them difficult to detect.

The study focused on analyzing 14 leading spyware apps for Android phones. While Google does not allow the sale of these apps on its official app store, they can still be downloaded separately from the web. This is in contrast to iPhones, which do not allow such “side-loading” of apps, making spyware apps less prevalent on this platform.

Siri, digital assistant on phone
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So, how do spyware apps work?

These apps run secretly on a device, collecting a wide range of sensitive information such as location data, text messages, calls, and even audio and video recordings. Some apps can even stream live audio and video. All this data is then sent to the abuser through an online spyware portal.

The researchers discovered that spyware apps use various techniques to collect data without the user’s knowledge. For example, some apps utilize invisible browsers to stream live video from the device’s camera to the spyware server. Other apps can record phone calls by activating the device’s microphone or even the speaker function. Additionally, some apps take advantage of accessibility features designed for visually impaired users to record keystrokes and other sensitive information.

To make matters worse, these apps can hide themselves on the victim’s device. They can avoid appearing in the app launcher or masquerade as harmless icons like “Wi-Fi” or “Internet Service.” Some apps even accept commands through SMS messages, with a few of them executing these commands regardless of their source. In extreme cases, a command could be sent to remotely wipe the victim’s phone.

Data security is another major concern. Many spyware apps transmit the collected data through unencrypted channels, making it vulnerable to interception. Some apps store this data in publicly accessible URLs, allowing anyone with the link to access it. Furthermore, some apps retain sensitive data even after the user has deleted their account or stopped using the app.

Smartphone data: Privacy and security concept
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How can you protect yourself from spyware?

The researchers recommend that Android devices enforce stricter requirements for app icons to prevent them from hiding. They also suggest the implementation of a dashboard for monitoring apps that start automatically. Additionally, they propose adding a visible indicator to the user when the microphone or camera is being used by an app.

It’s important to note that the researchers have shared their findings with the affected app vendors, but they have not received any responses yet. To prevent misuse, they have chosen to make their work available only to individuals who can demonstrate a legitimate need for it.

The fight against spyware requires a collective effort from various stakeholders, including individuals, smartphone manufacturers, app stores, and law enforcement agencies. As individuals, we must stay vigilant and take steps to protect our privacy. Here are some key measures you can take to safeguard your device from spyware:

  1. Stick to Official App Stores: Avoid downloading apps from unknown sources or third-party websites. Stick to trusted app stores like Google Play Store or Apple App Store, as they have strict security measures in place to minimize the risk of spyware-infected apps.
  2. Check App Permissions: Pay attention to the permissions requested by apps during installation. Be cautious if an app asks for unnecessary permissions that seem unrelated to its functionality. If an app requests access to your microphone, camera, or other sensitive data without a legitimate reason, it could be a red flag.
  3. Regularly Update Your Device: Keep your smartphone’s operating system and apps up to date. Developers release regular updates to address security vulnerabilities and enhance overall device security. By staying up to date, you ensure that your device has the latest security patches to fend off potential spyware threats.
  4. Install Antivirus Software: Consider installing reputable antivirus or anti-malware software on your smartphone. These applications can scan your device for any malicious software, including spyware, and provide real-time protection against potential threats.
  5. Be Mindful of App Reviews: Before installing an app, take a moment to read user reviews and ratings. Pay attention to any suspicious or negative reviews that mention privacy concerns or unusual behavior. This can help you make informed decisions about which apps to trust.
  6. Regularly Review App Permissions: Periodically review the permissions granted to installed apps on your device. Revoke unnecessary permissions from apps that do not require access to certain data or functions. Limiting app permissions can minimize the risk of unauthorized access to your personal information.
  7. Protect Your Device with Strong Passwords: Secure your device with a strong password, PIN, or biometric authentication. This adds an extra layer of protection, making it more difficult for unauthorized individuals to install spyware or gain access to your device.
  8. Educate Yourself and Spread Awareness: Stay informed about the latest spyware threats and share this information with friends and family. By raising awareness about the dangers of spyware, we can collectively work towards creating a safer digital environment.

Remember, your privacy is valuable, and taking proactive steps to protect it is essential in today’s digital age. By following these guidelines and staying informed, you can reduce the risk of falling victim to spyware and ensure your personal information remains secure.

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