Are smart devices spying on us?

At some point in the last few years, targeted online advertisements reached an age and stage of sophistication and prevalence that their presence stopped surprising us unless we couldn't remember typing, clicking, sharing, or searching for the product in question.

Northeastern University sought to find out if our phones ever recorded what we said and shared it with advertisers but found in a study of more than 17,000 Android apps none activated one's microphone or turned on one's camera without prompting and only 12 recorded screenshots of our activity.

"I thought it'd be a lot worse," Tom's Guide security editor Paul Wagenseil said.

He thought that phones and other devices likely might be listening to our conversations and was not surprised that the app Samba TV, installed on nearly 14 million smart TVs in this country, recorded everything watched on that television and shared it with marketers. He also wondered about the growing popularity of digital assistants and smart speakers.

"I would feel funny about having one of these devices in my house," Wagenseil said.

Northeastern's researchers also didn't say your phone isn't listening to your conversations, either. And if it isn't, that it couldn't if app-makers wanted it to.

"The potential is always there, especially if you download stuff from third-party app markets. You don't know what's going on there," Wagenseil said. "There's a big gray line between spying and advertising and market research."