Privacy is a major concern these days, and it’s easy to worry about smartphones that are “always listening.” To combat this, Google is making a major change to how background apps are handled in its upcoming Android P.
A Look to the Future
We’ve all heard the horror stories about malicious apps being able to take control of a device while running in the background. Take the recently-found Skygofree malware for example. It was capable of executing 48 different commands, including the ability to turn on your phone’s microphone and listen in on…whatever you’re talking about at the time.
That’s a pretty scary thought. Even if you “have nothing to hide” (that’s what people always say, right?), no one wants every conversation to be potentially public.
Regardless of what app is trying to spy on you, they all work the same way: leveraging access to the phone’s hardware while the app runs in the background. The thing is, why would an app need to access your camera or microphone while running in the background? There isn’t much of a good argument here, save for always-listening hotword detection (like OK Google). And that should be part of the core operating system in the first place.
To put that plainly: there’s no reason an app should need access to the camera or microphone while it’s running in the background. And starting with Android P, access to these hardware features will be blocked for apps running in the background.
Left: Camera commit; Right: Microphone commit.
A recent commit to AOSP (Android Open Source Project) shows a rule that would block background apps from accessing the camera. A second commit shows the same for the microphone. These two commits give you an idea of how these features will work, and both are already active in the Android P developer preview, which is available now for Pixel phones.
What You Can Do Right Now
While it’s cool that Google is taking steps to stop apps from spying on you in the background in a future version of Android, there are steps you can take to prevent apps from spying on you right now.
Check App Permissions
While you can’t prevent apps from having access to certain permissions only while they’re running in the background, you can control what permissions apps have access to overall.
To find this, jump into the Settings menu, and then choose the “Apps” category (“Apps & Notifications” on Oreo).
Left: Nougat; Right: Oreo
What you do from here depends on what version of Android your phone is running.
- Android Nougat: Tap the Settings button in the upper corner, and then tap “App Permissions.” On Samsung Galaxy devices, you’ll find “App Permissions” in the menu, instead.
- Android Oreo: Choose “App Permissions” on the “Apps & Notifications” page.
Left to Right: Stock Nougat, Samsung Galaxy (Nougat), and Oreo
Next, tap a permission to see which apps can have access to it. For the sake of this piece, we’ll take a look at the Microphone permission.
As you scroll through the list of apps, ask yourself why each app would need access to the microphone. For example, Instagram needs it when recording videos, so that makes sense. But it may not be as clear for other apps. If something seems questionable to you, revoke access for that app by turning off the toggle to the app’s right.
If an app you disable needs access to the feature in the future, it will request access again. That may give you a better understanding of why the app wants the permissions, and if you should allow it.
Just repeat this process for every permission and your phone will be safer in no time.