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On Your Side Investigators: Smartphone apps could be listening to you

Source: WBRC Source: WBRC
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -

We know hackers are always finding ways to take advantage of us. More and more of it happening on our smartphones. Cyber security experts say a new kind of attack sends an ultrasonic sound to your phone.

We know smartphones and apps can track us. Big retail chains do it to find out our shopping habits. But we're told more of them are now using sound to track our movements.

"Your phone’s microphones can detect these signals,” Dr. Ragib Hasan, a UAB researcher and assistant professor of Computer and Information Services said.

Ultrasonic sounds, too high pitched for you to hear, are giving your phone secret instructions.

"It can notify an app on your phone to track you,” Hasan said.

So yes, apps have the ability to listen to us. Hasan discovered that malware in smartphones can actually be trigged by these high pitched sounds.

"Essentially it’s like putting a tag on you and tracking your movements 24/7,” Hasan said.

You may not even know it but you are giving access to apps by allowing them to use your phone's microphone.

"Many people install apps and whenever the apps ask for permission to access the microphone, they give them permission without even thinking,” Hasan said.

This type of technology is getting into the hands of crooks. Hasan says these cyber thieves are putting up small beacons in physical locations like parks to allow the apps to listen to us. Hasan's research found the beacons can pick up sound from as far as 60 feet away.

Once those viruses are inside your phone, hackers can pretty much gain access to everything.

"If I'm close to a bank, it can force the malware to start recording whatever I'm doing. Start recording my transactions or if it's on my hand, it can open up the camera and record my ATM pin and all this information,” Hasan said.

Hasan says the best advice is to think twice before installing apps. If the app doesn't need your microphone and asks permission to use it any way that could be a sign of this type of tracking technology.

"Think about it. Like a shopping application. Do they really need access to your microphone? Probably not. If an app you are installing, it can be a game or any other kind of app. If that app if asking for permissions it should not have, that's a tell-tale sign of something is happening behind the scenes,” Hasan added.

Here’s how to check to see what apps have requested permission to use your smartphone’s microphone:

If you have an iPhone go to settings then privacy then tap on the microphone to see which apps have requested access. On Android phones, go to settings, then apps then tap the gear icon and app permissions to see those apps that request to use your microphone.

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