According to one recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, cellphone ownership is at an all-time high. Not only do 95 percent of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind, but a massive 77 percent of them are smartphones – up from just 35 percent a few years earlier in 2011. Regardless of the specific type of phone you have, all models tend to share a few key features in common. All of them have microphones – after all, you need to be able to actually communicate with the people you’re calling. Nearly all of them also have a camera – probably one that can record video and still images in resolutions as high as 4K.

These two features, by the way, are ones that someone could be using to spy on you right now. It’s true – this powerful little device that you carry around with you in your pocket all day could be hiding a terrible secret. Not only is it your entryway into the digital world, it could be a digital spy’s entryway into your own. This digital privacy issue is one that is so widespread – and so important – that it is absolutely worth a closer look moving forward.

The Case of the Digital Spies

Whenever you download a new app like Snapchat or Facebook, most of them ask for access to a few key parts of your phone. Your camera and your microphone are a given – after all, those selfies aren’t going to post themselves. But upon granting access to those features, you’re also giving that app a huge amount of leeway. While you probably don’t have to worry about an app like Snapchat spying on you, in theory, it could do any of the following things, thanks to the permissions it has already been granted:

  • It can access both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras on your phone any time the app is running.
  • Any time the app is in the foreground, the app could potentially be recording you.
  • It could not only capture photos and videos without specifically telling you, but it could also upload them to the internet for all to see – immediately.

So even if someone doesn’t have access to the user account on their phone, they might not need it to spy on you. All they would need to do is to get into your account on a particular app you’ve already given these types of permissions to. After that, everything else will more or less fall into place.

A lot of this digital suspicion stems back to Edward Snowden, who became a household name after revealing the existence of an NSA program called Optic Nerves. For those unfamiliar, this was a bulk surveillance program the likes of which had never been seen before. NSA operatives were able to capture webcam images every couple of minutes from users’ computers that they would then store for later use. Snowden estimated that anywhere between 3 percent and 11 percent of those images contained some level of nudity, by the way.

Backdoors in mobile operating systems can also be used by, not only agencies like the NSA, but other people with malicious intentions to essentially remote control your phone without your knowing. They could not only record your phone calls and read your messages, but they could capture photos and videos of you at literally any point – throughout the day.

As smartphones became more popular, and as social media did the same, we all quickly got used to the idea that we were going to have to give up a little bit of our privacy for the sake of convenience. But few people could have predicted the situation would be as grave as the one we now face. So, unfortunately, the answer to the question, “is your phone’s microphone and camera spying on you?” isn’t a hard “yes” or “no” – nor will it ever be. Instead, the more accurate and honest answer is “who knows… but it easily could be, and you can’t do anything about it.” Which, of course, is even more terrifying.