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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Handset privacy - any rules or standards?

I was just playing with the Adobe Flash player on my PC, and stumbled on this page about privacy settings.

It got me thinking about the software on my mobile handsets - what applications have the automatic right to access the microphone and/or cameras? Obviously the main phone dialler, any obvious speech-based functions, and the videotelephony app, and any VoIP clients... but what else? And how do I control it?

Now I know there have been a few stories about the potential for security services to covertly switch on phones' microphones, but that's a little separate. I'm thinking about other applications - either mainstream multimedia apps, or perhaps malware. Maybe I'm just being paranoid.

As far as I know, there aren't any standards about this which span different handset smartphone OS's, or even more locked-down featurephones. As a user, I have no direct knowledge of when the mike or camera is "live". Maybe there should be the equivalent of a TV camera's red 'recording' light? I guess that organisations like the OMTP might be the best-suited to standardise something like this.

I suspect that any really intrusive always-on audio/video spyware would have a noticeable impact on battery life, but imagine a piece of software that just recorded what you said for the 30 seconds after the end of a phone call.

"Great! another customer paying full price! What a sucker"
"OMG, he just asked my on a date!"
"It's OK, my wife thinks I'm in a meeting"
"Yeah, that geezer's got a garage full of moody kettles"
"Jeez that was a tough briefing. Bloody know-it-all analysts"

I'm currently sitting in a hotel room, so I can't check & see if a Windows or Symbian device has a privacy menu which enables you to force applications "to always ask for permission" to use the mike or camera, but I can't remember seeing one, and I suspect that 99% of normal users would never find it anyway.

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