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posted by mrpg on Saturday April 16 2022, @05:39PM   Printer-friendly
from the hush dept.

You're muted... or are you? Videoconferencing apps may listen even when mic is off:

Kassem Fawaz's brother was on a videoconference with the microphone muted when he noticed that the microphone light was still on—indicating, inexplicably, that his microphone was being accessed.

[...] "It turns out, in the vast majority of cases, when you mute yourself, these apps do not give up access to the microphone," says Fawaz. "And that's a problem. When you're muted, people don't expect these apps to collect data."

[...] They found that all of the apps they tested occasionally gather raw audio data while mute is activated, with one popular app gathering information and delivering data to its server at the same rate regardless of whether the microphone is muted or not.

The researchers then decided to see if they could use data collected on mute from that app to infer the types of activities taking place in the background. Using machine learning algorithms, they trained an activity classifier using audio from YouTube videos representing six common background activities, including cooking and eating, playing music, typing and cleaning. Applying the classifier to the type of telemetry packets the app was sending, the team could identify the background activity with an average of 82% accuracy.

[...] "With a camera, you can turn it off or even put your hand over it, and no matter what you do, no one can see you," says Fawaz. "I don't think that exists for microphones."

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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by kazzie on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:05PM (3 children)

    by kazzie (5309) on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:05PM (#1237514)

    I tend to prefer using my laptop's mute switch as opposed to dragging my cursor over to a particular button to mute or un-mute during an online meeting. (There's also a switch on the dangling volume control of my headset, but I tend to forget about that one.)

    The trouble is that this local mute information isn't conveyed to the rest of the call. This can be awkward when the inevitable complaints of "there's feedback/background noise, can everyone who's not speaking please mute" surface, and my indicator suggests that I'm one of the culprits. It becomes even more fun when the call co-ordinator silently force-mutes everyone in the app: later I unmute my local control and start speaking, only to find that I'm talking to myself.

    (Thankfully the lion's share of my videoconferencing is done where I am the teacher and call co-ordinator, so I am obviously un-muted most of the time. I also tend to be the only one using a proper headset, too.)

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  • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:38PM (2 children)

    by hendrikboom (1125) on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:38PM (#1237542) Homepage Journal

    my laptop's mute switch

    My laptop has a physical switch that cuts power to the microphone and camera. Off means off.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by zafiro17 on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:27PM (1 child)

      by zafiro17 (234) on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:27PM (#1237565) Homepage

      That's the way to go. Sadly, the "all in one devices" with everything integrated are now a risk, because you can't be given physical switches like that. When you're on a desktop you can just unplug the devices and be done with them. On a phone/tablet with microphone etc. already built in, there's no way in hardware. I go back and forth between loving my cellphone and wanting to leave it at home once and for all. Tired of all the tracking. Not knowing whether my conference software is listening makes me want to uninstall it and be done.

      Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis - Jack Handey
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:19PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:19PM (#1237696)

        You can, they just choose not to because that would cost a few cents. It's the same reason why you no longer see physical switches to enable airplane mode on cellphones. It costs a bit and prevents them from spying as effectively.