Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

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Android automatically backs up your Wi-Fi passwords to your Google account, where they’re synced to your future Android devices. This is a convenient feature that saves you from entering Wi-Fi passwords over and over, but it means that Google likely knows all your Wi-Fi passwords. And, given recent revelations about PRISM and the NSA’s ability to demand data from Google without a warrant, the NSA likely has access to all of them. But Wi-Fi passwords aren’t the only thing that Google — and therefore the US government and other governments around the world — can get from your phone.

Google may be fairly harmless — sure, it uses your data to target ads to you, but it has an incentive to behave responsibly. But this isn’t just about Google. The US government and other governments around the world having access to this data is potentially more concerning. Google says all this data is encrypted in transit, but Google holds the keys and could decrypt it whenever they wanted (or were made to).

Location Tracking

Android tracks your phone’s location by default. It uses this information to make your life easier — for example, Google Now will display weather, places of interest, and travel directions related to your current location. It can also use this information to allow you to track your lost phone online if you enable the Android Device Manager feature.

This feature is useful and enables many of the best features in Google Now, but it also means that Google has a log of where you’ve been.

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android google access location   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

Scanning Nearby Wi-Fi Networks

Android scans for nearby Wi-Fi networks and uses their names to help estimate your location faster. By default, your device automatically uploads “anonymous” location data from Wi-Fi networks and cell towers to Google. But how anonymous would this data be if the NSA demanded Google tie it to users and hand it over? Even if Google were doing this, they wouldn’t be allowed to tell us.

android location access settings   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

Wi-Fi Passwords

As we mentioned above, Google automatically backs up your Wi-Fi data to the cloud if you leave the “Back up my data” setting enabled. This means that any Wi-Fi passwords you enter aren’t just secured on your device, but are stored tied to your Google account on Google’s servers.

android account backups   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

Contacts & Calendar Events

Sure, your emails are obviously in Google’s hands if you use Gmail. However, other included apps also synchronize with Google’s services. For example, by default, contacts you add to your phone’s People app are synchronized with Google Contacts online and calendar events you add are synchronized to Google Calendar.

This integration with Google services is part of what makes Android so useful. It ensures you have backups of your data and allows you to access it via the web and on your other devices but it also means that Google will have your phone’s contacts and calendar events stored on their servers by default.

android contacts google   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

Browser History, Open Tabs, Passwords and More

Android now includes Chrome as its default web browser. If you set up Chrome sync, Chrome will behave just like it does on the desktop — synchronizing your browser history, open tabs, bookmarks, and even saved passwords online so you’ll have access to them from other Chrome browsers. Google is quick to say that this data is encrypted, but Google holds the encryption key and could decrypt it if the NSA asked.

android chrome sync   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

Miscellaneous App Data

Some apps — but not all apps — automatically synchronize their app data with Google via Android’s backup feature. This allows them to synchronize game saves and other app data between your Android devices. So some other miscellaneous app data is also available to Google and the NSA.

Some App Usage

App developers can include Google Analytics tracking in their apps. This allows the developer to see how many people are actually using their app, how much the users use the app, and identify features no one uses. It’s just like how similar tracking data is used to improve websites. However, it also means that Google has information about when and how you use certain apps — assuming the developer included Google Analytics tracking features.

Photos

Android now prompts you to set up automatic uploading of your photos to Google+ Photos. This is a very useful feature, ensuring you’ll never have to manually upload or copy photos off your phone again. However, it obviously means that Google has all the photos you take stored on their servers if you enable it.

Of course, if you used Dropbox‘s automatic upload feature on Android or switched to an iPhone and used the iCloud Photo Stream feature, your photos would also be stored online via the online photo storage service.

google auto backup photos   Android Is Watching: 8 Ways A Typical Smartphone Is Monitoring You

What About Call Logs and SMS Messages?

As far as we know, call logs and SMS messages are not backed up to Google’s servers. They certainly haven’t been restored to any of our devices after wiping them, so if they are being backed up, Google is creating a copy only for themselves — not too likely.

Of course, this data is obviously available to Google if you use Google Voice. But it shouldn’t be synced on typical Android phones. This is a blind spot in Android’s synchronization, however — we wouldn’t be surprised to see Google start to sync this data in a future release of Android.

Should You Worry?

So, should you worry? Well, we’d like to say no. Google likely knows a lot about you, but it uses this data to tailor experiences to you — see the awesome Google Now — and target higher-value ads to you. Google also likely has no real interest in some of this data — why would Google really want a list of all Wi-Fi passwords in the world? They’re just collecting that data so they can make your life easier.

Sure, your Android smartphone is tracking you — but so are iPhones, Windows Phones, and the websites you visit. Data is constantly being collected by everyone, including your phone company and Internet service provider. We could write similar articles about how the iPhone, Windows Phone, and other platforms collect and store data.

We’d like to say you shouldn’t care. But recent revelations have thrown us all. NSA employees have used their access to vast amounts of data to track their love interests — it’s possible that your location data could be sucked up and government employees could use their access to spy on your movements. Even Google themselves faced this problem when Google engineer David Barksdale was fired for using his low-level access to spy on and harass teens and other Google users back in 2010.

So, should you actually worry about how your Android phone is tracking you? Only insofar as you should worry about all the other tracking that’s already going on — the data being uploaded from Android phones is just one more example of how much data we’re unknowingly sharing with corporations every day. It also demonstrates just how much data governments around the world have access to without appropriate safeguards, limitations, or oversight.

But don’t let us answer this question for you — let us know whether you’re worried or not in the comments. Have you disabled any of these features? Are you worried about Google, the NSA, or other governments having access to this data? Leave a comment below and share your reaction.

Image Credit: SNappa2006 on Flickr

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13 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

Don Gateley

With all the apps, including Google search, that require permission to turn on your microphone and camera without any user notification, you are carrying a wire should any of those apps decide to listen.

Do you suppose any of them do? Everything you or any conversant have said within proximity to your Android phone is likely stored somewhere and many who would never imagine it are involved in some sting.

Careful people give consideration to what they say on the phone but not usually on what they say after they’ve put it back in their pocket.

Koush, Steve, and Cyanogen Inc should seriously consider including in their Android distribution the hooks for audio/video invasion detection and suppression.

Reply

Joel L

I hadn’t heard about the incident with NSA employees spying on their love interests. As creepy as that sounds, I don’t know if it’s any worse than creeping on someone’s Facebook page. I guess the problem is that they can log all of this information and creep on it retroactively.

I only use my Android for taking notes (40%), texting (50%), and calling (10%). All of those things are so mundane that if NSA or Google want to track it, I say go for it. I’d be bored to tears having to sift through my boring life, lol.

Reply

Jumo

Google its self is the NSA. This is why alternatives are good. I deleted my Google account and switched to another mobile phone OS.

Reply

You Choose

My first “smartphone” was a Windows device. I quickly discovered that all of my private info had been “clouded” to a web-facing “live” account. Disabling all of the sync options was a suspiciously convoluted and uncertain undertaking. The phone wouldn’t allow me to store any contacts on the device – unless the sync option was enabled – meaning you are forced to share your contacts with MS.

Android is not much better, but I’ve managed to tame my device into syncing the least amount of data possible, but I’d still prefer a device where everything is contained locally – like a feature-phone.

Hopefully, Firefox OS will provide a viable solution for people who still care about their privacy.

Javier

Hi.
I’m not in tne Firefox OS yet, but I’d like to know why do you say it will provide a solution.

Thanks in advance.

Reply

Pooky J

Hey, why don’t you write about iOS, Windows Phone or else?

Reply

ray

who cares the anti Christ will get you anyways

Reply

Tscharli

America has learned a lot from Nazi- Deutschland. But now they even excels Hitler and his Regime.

Reply

junbug20

The features are shutdown, thank you

Reply

Dahlia

The technology available to Goog’vernment is, at a minimum, 25 years ahead of what they’re giving to you via the expensive & not-so-smart gadgetry. The quote attributed to PT Barnum comes to mind….

blah

Reference ??

I love it when people post statements presented as fact, without legit reference/proof
It’s like the Homeopathic loonies… It’s true ! Really it is !

Reply

Dahlia

Pull your head out of the sand, open your eyes, look around and face reality. I too love it when people post comments presented as fact–like the ‘homeopathic loonies’ —or, one could say, like the group-think, hive-mind, borg people who can’t get out of their own way in order to see the obvious…you know; that sort.

Reply

Anonymous

do you think the price you pay for the device is what it cost to develop , manufacture and retail. is there a Loss in the cost .
All the good people say follow the money . who is subsidising ? why ?
is the number of competitors getting smaller ? like the number of oil companies whiltled down to Standard Oil ? similarities ?
Are you asking yourself any questions , do you really care ?
Trust ? Who . Why . Why Not .
for 55.5 billion dollars i’ll tell you . and

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