Three Surprising Ways Your Smartphone Can Be Used to Spy On You

Philip Bates 15-08-2016

Everybody knows that carrying a smartphone in your pocket is like keeping a personal tracker on you at all times. We sacrifice a lot for convenience.


In exchange for quick searching, we hand over a great amount to Google Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Read More . To keep in touch with family and friends, we give Facebook so much information about ourselves What Does Facebook Know About You? Why You Should Delete Facebook What does Facebook really know about you? One thing's for sure: if you want online privacy, Facebook is best avoided. Read More . And there were concerns over how Pokémon Go could infringe on your privacy.

But you might not know that your photos, Bluetooth, and even smartphone battery could be used to spy on you…

Geotagging Data Stored On Your Photos

Exchangeable Image File (EXIF) information What EXIF Photo Data Is, How to Find It & How to Understand It Pretty much every digital camera available today records EXIF data within each image you take. The data is useful for improving your photography and can also be quite interesting, especially if you're a geek. Read More is incredibly handy, whether you’re a professional photographer or an amateur. This data is included whenever you take a picture using your smartphone or digital camera; for the latter, that EXIF information can include date and time the photo was taken, focal length, camera used, and orientation. If you’re impressed with the exposure, checking out the EXIF data can help you recreate it How The Heck Did I Take That Photo?! Checking Picasa For Camera Settings One of the more hands-on ways to learn about the art and science of photography is by looking at photos and the data that comes with it. The data that comes embedded (usually) with every... Read More .

Smartphones, too, include the date stamp of when images were taken; scroll through an iPhone and each picture will include that identification. If you saved an image from online, you might find either the date you added it to your Photo Stream or when it was actually taken by its original owner.


Due to smartphones’ geotagging capabilities, however, the information stored includes your location Find Latitude and Longitude Coordinates & Ways To Use Them Online Most of the time, when you're looking for directions or want to find a location, you probably go directly to Google Maps (or whatever your favorite mapping tool is) and look up the address. Well,... Read More .

As long as you use GPS, you can successfully trace where you’ve been. Combining this data with what’s included in photos, a stranger could work out where you go on holiday, which events you regularly attend, and yes, where you live.

In most cases, that’s not too much of a worry. After all, you’re the only one flicking through your phone, right? Putting aside possible theft Five Ways a Thief Can Profit From Your Stolen Hardware Criminals steal your PC, your laptop, your smartphone, either by burglarising your house, or by snatching them from you. But then what happens? What can thieves do with your stolen tech? Read More , issues could arise if you’re passing your device on. Even factory resets don’t completely wipe all phones — that’s why you should always encrypt your data 7 Reasons Why You Should Encrypt Your Smartphone Data Are you encrypting your device? All major smartphone operating systems offer device encryption, but should you use it? Here's why smartphone encryption is worthwhile, and won't affect the way you use your smartphone. Read More before selling or recycling any hardware Beware These 8 Security Issues When Recycling Hardware Recycling old hardware is a good idea, but you don't want to give away personal data. Consider these security concerns before getting rid of your hardware, and see what you can do about them. Read More .

Another concern is hacking 4 Ways To Avoid Being Hacked Like A Celebrity Leaked celebrity nudes in 2014 made headlines around the world. Make sure it doesn't happen to you with these tips. Read More . I’m sure you remember when the iCloud accounts of numerous celebrities were hacked into How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations Read More and NSFW images were leaked. That’s a fine example of cybercriminals obtaining not only potential blackmail material Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More , but also a worrisome amount of metadata. Similarly, social media accounts have been hacked, including Snapchat Snapchat Leaks: How To Avoid Being The Next Victim Snapchat has reached such a massive scale that it's now more important than ever for users to be mindful of security while using the self-destructing photo app. Read More . Fortunately, Facebook and Twitter automatically remove embedded information, so you don’t need to trouble yourself further there.


What can you do? Most smartphones give you the option of removing geotagged metadata, and it’s surprisingly easy.

On an iPhone, for instance, you simply click on Settings > Privacy > Location Services, and near the top of the list of apps that do want use of your GPS, you’ll find Camera. If it’s on While Using the App, change it to Never. While you’re there, you might as well check you’re happy with the apps that do currently have access to your location.

On Android, open the camera app, tap on the menu, then the gear icon to see settings; from here, you should see something like Location, GPS tag, or Geotag, depending on the device, and disable it.


Is Bluetooth Compromising Your Location and Contacts?

While most of us are used to sending information between cell phones over Wi-Fi, we had to rely on Bluetooth What Is Bluetooth? 10 Common Questions, Asked and Answered What is Bluetooth and how does it work? We take a look at Bluetooth, why it's so useful, and how to use it. Read More for ages. It’s a wireless short-range connection between devices, still found in smartphones because it’s very useful, particularly if you’re trying to use speakers 7 Ways a Bluetooth Speaker Can Let Your Gadgets Talk to You You've probably seen portable Bluetooth speakers on sale, but never thought of a need for them. Think again: you can use IFTTT to make a simple notification system for your smart home. Read More , a hands-free kit, or, if you’re not put off by our cautionary article, a keyboard 6 Reasons Why You Should NOT Buy a Bluetooth Keyboard Before you commit to buying a Bluetooth keyboard, consider these drawbacks and issues that may cause you to change your mind. Read More .


The latest Bluetooth has potential How Bluetooth 4.0 Is Shaping the Future of Mobile Connectivity Bluetooth is the forgotten star on the device specifications sheet. Read More , but many still hate it. And a big part of that is how “discoverable” you are.

If you’ve not toggled your settings accordingly, others can easily find your device using Bluetooth. That sort of surveillance is troublesome, and could be used by shops How Shops Track You Using Your Smartphone How would you feel if a retail tracked your smartphone as you browsed their store? Would it be easier to palate if they offered you some discounts while breaching your privacy? Read More , for instance, to specifically target you. Shop surveillance is even capable of noting how often you visit a certain section of the store. Stores already use Wi-Fi analytics 4 Services That Track You Through Your Smartphone Whether you paid for your smartphone outright, or have it on contract, there's a further price to be paid for the conveniences you use. Are you happy to be tracked through your device? Read More to trace customers, but Bluetooth is a good alternative.


Nonetheless, there’s a myth 5 Common Bluetooth Myths You Can Safely Ignore Now Bluetooth has evolved over the past 20 years, and what you thought you knew about it is wrong. Let's dispel those Bluetooth myths. Read More that changing your Bluetooth to “non-discoverable” protects you. Sadly, hackers are smarter than that.

This has led to Bluejacking — that is, sending malicious content to your phone via Bluetooth, including eavesdropping software, and malware. In 2012, for instance, the security suite firm, Kaspersky Labs uncovered Flame, malware used in places like Israel, Sudan, and Syria but most widely found in Iran. Due to its considerable file size (and the fact it took at least two years to be discovered), Kaspersky claimed it was:

“[O]ne of the most complex threats ever discovered.”

It used Bluetooth to search and download contact names and phone numbers from not only the user’s device but also any nearby Bluetooth-enabled smartphones. Furthermore, after installation, the malware could record calls, including Skype This Trojan Malware Might Be Recording Your Skype Conversations If you've use Skype, you need to know about the Trojan T9000, malware that records your conversations, video-calls and text messaging, and is virtually undetectable to security suites. Read More , and take screenshots, including in-private messaging and emails, then send material back to its originator. Needless to say, it was a fantastic toolkit in a secret services’ arsenal Tomorrow's Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You - Soon Surveillance is always on the cutting edge of technology. Here are four technologies that will be used to violate your privacy over the next few years. Read More .

That shows Bluetooth’s potential for spying on you.

What can you do? Being aware of the problem is a good first step, especially if you naïvely think iPhones don’t use Bluetooth. (I’m not criticizing: I was unaware of that for some years too!)

One line of defence, of course, is a solid four-digit passcode Should You Use a Fingerprint or a PIN to Lock Your Phone? Should you protect your phone with a fingerprint or a PIN? Which one is actually more secure? Read More . Don’t go for something obvious. Your best bet, though, is turning Bluetooth off, preventing hackers from getting into your device. “Non-discoverable” might seem like a safe option, but it’s much better if you simply turn Bluetooth on solely when you intend to use it.

Yes, Your Battery Can Spy On You

This sounds utterly bizarre, but it’s come to light, relatively recently, that your smartphone battery can be used against you.


It started with good intentions: websites and apps can request information automatically from your smartphone about how much battery you’ve got left; if it’s low, the site can then present a lower-power version of itself so it doesn’t burn up your much-needed charge.

But research, collated from a study of the top 1 million sites, suggests that some services can use that data to spy on your online activities and bypass privacy measures you might be employing already, like using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) 8 Instances You Weren't Using a VPN but Should've Been: The VPN Checklist If you haven't already considered subscribing to a VPN to secure your privacy, now is the time. Read More . It’s a scary thought because there’s very little you can do about it.

The immediate concern was that the protocol can be carried out without the user’s permission, but that didn’t set off too many alarms as it was solely to send data on the estimated time until the battery dies, and how long it’ll take to charge. But combined, these can form an identifier, especially as the information reloads every 30 seconds. That means that two seemingly-separate data sets (through private browsing 6 Ways You Can Be Tracked in Incognito or Private Browsing Mode Private browsing is private in 99% of cases, but can private browsing be hacked? Can you tell what someone has viewed incognito? Read More or the aforementioned VPN) can be linked, so no matter how you try to evade detection, your browsing can be tracked.

Visiting the same site frequently means your cookies can be reinstated, even if you’ve cleared them, a practice known as respawning; doing it for an extended period — those sites you visit every morning before your start work, for example — can result in a more definite unique identifier being assigned to your device.

This might not seem too troubling (after all, we’re used to being tracked online by all sorts of services, including those Facebook sharing buttons It Doesn't Matter If You're Not On Facebook: They're Still Tracking You A new report claims the Facebook is tracking people without their permission. It doesn't matter if you don't use social networking service: they're still watching you. What can you do about it? Read More ), but there are real-world consequences. A notable one is Uber, the popular taxi company, which denies any questionable business techniques but admits potential is there to charge its customers more when their battery’s nearly dead. Uber’s head of economic research, Keith Chen says:

“When your phone is down to 5% battery and that little icon on the iPhone turns red, people start saying, “I’d better get home or I don’t know how I’m going to get home otherwise.” We absolutely don’t use that to push you a higher surge price. But it is an interesting psychological fact of human behaviour.”

What can you do? This is a difficult practice to battle against. Data is collected if your battery’s low, so keeping it topped up is a good move, as is avoiding apps that sap it Avoid These iPhone Apps for Better Battery Life Killing background apps won't save your battery — in some cases you'll have to completely avoid an app in order to stop it from draining your smartphone's energy. Read More . Otherwise, you might want to consider only visiting sites you go on regularly on one specific device (maybe your work’s PC) so your smartphone isn’t tracked relentlessly.

Smart Spying?

Subterfuge is the ideal method for tracking, at least to those who want as much of your private information as they can, so spreading the word certainly helps. Nonetheless, surveillance will always evolve, and these three examples highlight how smart services can be.

Which other tracking methods surprise you? How do you fight against Big Brother?

Image Credit: Bluetooth by Neil Turner and Apple iPhone Charging by Intel Free Press

Related topics: Bluetooth, Smartphone Photography, Smartphone Security.

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  1. Moon
    October 24, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    I will fight against AWTOK and Big Brother.
    AWTOK dreams of a world without Mythicals, where every Mythical is dead.
    I dream of a world with acceptance of everything harmless.
    AWTOK is funded by the government.
    The war against AWTOK starts in 2020.
    Do you want to join the Shadow Rebellion?

  2. Anonymous
    August 16, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    I second, third and fourth anonymouse1's sentiments.

    The increasing online tracking trend may not "seem troubling" to the lemmings that blithely and eagerly hand over their private and personal information in an uncontrolled urge for just little more convenience. However, this trend is VERY TROUBLING to anyone who values their privacy and security. Today's amount and methods of tracking make NKVD, KGB, Stasi, Gestapo and others of their ilk look like rank amateurs. I used to believe that there will come a day that every newborn, pursuant to laws passed by governments, will be implanted with an RFID chip so they can always be tracked. Now I see that such laws are unnecessary. We VOLUNTARILY carry on our persons devices that allow anybody and everybody to track our every move and spy on our every activity. We willingly give up our private lives so that we can more conveniently post inanities on social networks and/or play Candy Crush, Angry Birds or Pokemon GO more easily.

  3. anonymouse1
    August 16, 2016 at 4:55 am

    In response to the author's aforementioned statement, "This might not seem too troubling (after all, we’re used to being tracked online by all sorts of services, including those Facebook sharing buttons), but there are real-world consequences,"----I wholeheartedly disagree with that particular statement.

    I'm not used to being tracked because I do everything within my power to protect that which rightfully belongs to me-------my Personally Identifiable Information. I don't use privacy-violating services such as Facebook nor Skype, nor have I hopped on the Win10 anti-privacy-train to it's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, USA. And there are many millions more citizen's just like me whom also draw this boundary-line. It is a personal boundary that should never, ever be crossed we have every right to be angry about it and to reject this type of abuse and exploitation of our information every chance we get!

    To suggest that this privacy-violating trend is not too troubling is akin to throwing the 'log' of our identity on an open fire and acting as if it's of no consequence whatsoever. We have an unalienable right to protect whom we are! Corporations should not get a free pass to blur these boundaries of ours simply because they can make money by doing so---and they should never get a pass to infringe upon our human rights now, nor at any time in the future.

    A line needs to drawn which prevents this from happening while at the same time protecting our rights and our identities. These corporate thugs aren't going to draw that line, which is why it is up to us to champion our privacy at every possible juncture---lest we give up and let these corporate creeps destroy the very fabric of what makes us human in the first place.

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    We have an innate need for privacy as human beings. Just because companies are acting irresponsibly with regard to our own identities, does not mean that we have to accept it, nor that it is something that we should get used to-------ever!

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    Privacy is our fundamental right as human beings and a necessary component of true security. Those whom tell you that privacy must be sacrificed in order to provide security are lying to you for the sake of insane profiteering off of whom you are, where you go and what you do-------This is one of the greatest deceptions of our time!

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    These companies and their ad-affiliates get away with it because of their ability to hide behind the already obscure nature of the internet itself. Essentially, they prey upon user-ineptitude about their ability to hide their privacy-violating actions from plain sight, in order to keep us defenseless against their unethical actions of pilfering our personal information. They're able to maintain this standard of operation because they use vague---yet deceptive language in their Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Agreements, of which have been legally designed to protect their exploitation of your personal information.

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    The privacy-violating Corporations and Agencies can 'put on show' for their consumers all they want, but they're not fooling anyone! Smart people see through this veil of deception-------this egregious affront to our own lives and liberties!----Our personal freedoms and our rights to privacy!

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