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Is your gadget's microphone spying on you?

We've told you about hidden cameras and how to spot them, and even about apps that can be installed on your smartphone or tablet to spy on you. But there's another type of spying that is also concerning.

You might remember the story we shared earlier this month about Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor at the University of South Florida. She suspected that Facebook was gathering information on her using the microphone on her smartphone and using it to pass on to its advertisers. (Click here to read the full story.)

Recent security reports indicate that advertisers aren't the only ones out there who are interested in what you're saying. Hackers are also finding that the cameras and microphones on your devices can provide them with valuable information.

Maybe that's why Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg covers his webcam with tape.

Hacked cameras are fairly easy to spot, since many of them have a light that turns on whenever the camera is in use. But microphones are much more stealthy. How can you tell if your microphone is being used? The short answer is: It's not that easy.

No harm, no foul?

You might think that it's no big deal if someone is listening to your conversations. What can be done with that information anyway? Who cares if someone overhears you sharing spoilers for your favorite show, or rooting for the Red Sox?

But the truth is, this information is quite valuable in the hands of the wrong person. Just think about it. Anytime you log into an online account, you're asked to confirm your username and password, and answer a few security questions. Questions such as the name of your pet, your best friend growing up, favorite sports team, etc.

The answers to these questions could be pieced together based on everyday conversations you're having. That's why you don't want anyone else listening.

Remote Access Trojans, or RATS, are one of the ways hackers can gain access to your system. The software is installed without your consent or knowledge, and it gives hackers the ability to control your computer remotely. This means they can turn your microphone on and off whenever they feel like it.

Even worse, malicious software could be installed on your computer already and you may not know about it. Many forms of spyware are so discreet, you won't notice any changes to your system's functionality.

Other gadgets at risk

Although it is possible for your mobile devices to be infected with malware that allows hackers access to your microphone, in most cases thieves will use spying apps to get the information they need. Luckily, installing these apps typically requires physical access to the device itself. But it can still happen. Here's what you need to look out for.

Android

It's simple to install a spying app on Android once you get past the lock screen, so make sure you have the lock screen turned on and no one knows the PIN, password or pattern.

You can make it a bit harder by blocking third-party apps from installing. Go to Settings>>Security and uncheck the Unknown Sources option. It won’t stop a really knowledgeable snoop, but it could stump less savvy ones.

Apple

In the past, installing non-iTunes third-party apps on an Apple gadget meant jailbreaking it. Jailbreaking is a fancy term for getting full access to iOS so you can get around Apple's safeguards.

The process is different for every version of iOS, and takes some time and knowledge to pull off, so Apple gear was always relatively safe. However, some spy apps, notably Mspy, don't need a jailbroken gadget anymore, as long as the snoop has your AppleID to log into iCloud.

If you have iCloud backup turned on, the person doesn't even need your phone. Granted, a non-jailbroken gadget won't give up as much information as a jailbroken one, but it's still a lot.

It's a good idea to keep your AppleID a closely guarded secret. On the plus side, if someone does use this method, you just have to change your AppleID password to lock them out.

Still, there's the chance that your snooper might try the old-fashioned method of jailbreaking. Again, if you keep your phone in sight and have your lock screen enabled with a solid PIN, it makes this nearly impossible.

Windows Phone/Mobile

No companies we could find have spy apps yet for Windows Phone 8 or Windows Mobile 10. There are some for older versions of Windows Mobile, but almost no one uses that anymore. As long as you keep an eye on your gadget and enable the lock screen, you should be fine.

Trojan smartphones

Getting a spying app onto a phone someone is using is tough - as long as they have a lock screen and other protections in place - but what if the app is on the phone from the beginning? There's no way to defend against that.

If someone offers you a shiny new smartphone out of nowhere, do some homework on where it came from before accepting.

This is important: If you think a spy app is already installed, do a factory reset of your phone - after you back up your information, of course. It's inconvenient, but it will give you peace of mind.

For more information on cellphone spying, click here.

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