Is Your Smartphone Listening To You?
How much of your conversation is your smart phone listening to?
The demand for smartphones has never been this high, and every phone comes with its own microphones. What is the implication of this on user’s privacy?
It goes beyond just phone calls. Most modern smartphones come with voice-controlled assistants like Microsoft Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant. They can be used to set reminders, fix appointments, and conduct searches. Some games and apps also require microphone access. But how secure is the audio recorded by these “intelligent assistants”?
Michelle De Mooy, the Acting DG of Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy & Data Project in a statement to Digital Trends, had this to say “Smartphones are small tracking devices, we may not think of them like that because they’re very personal devices — they travel with us, they sleep next to us. But they are in fact collectors of a vast amount of information including audio information.”
If you use Google services and you’re still in doubt, you can check out this link. As soon as you log onto your Google account, you’ll see all the activities conducted by you through Google services, from YouTube, to Chrome and Search, down to Android. Tap on the Filter by date & product icon at the top, and click on Voice & Audio, then Search. If you’ve used Google’s voice search, you’ll find a list of your audio recordings and you can even play it if you want.
Not many people know about the existence of this data. Google is actually quite transparent and the fact that you can review the data collected is an example of that. However, it won’t make any attempt to publicize the existence of that data. Not many companies allow you to view your recording when they record you, and nobody really knows what they do with those audios.
So, if you’re worried about what happens to the conversations you have on your smartphones, you’re not the only one.
Am not saying that humans are the ones listening to your recordings (though this Reddit thread might beg to differ), but a lot of companies are using different algorithms to find patterns that can help them fish out some potentially useful information from your interests and behavior patterns.
A lot of information can be obtained from audio data. They can easily use the ambient noise to determine your location. The background voices can be used to determine the people with you and the microphone can be used to measure the noise level to know when you’re sleeping.
According to De Mooy, “even if you think you’re not saying anything very interesting or worthwhile, the data gets married and mingled with lots of other kinds of data that can create a very detailed picture of you. Most of these technologies aren’t in a vacuum, they’re not siloed, they really are interacting with every other type of technology that we have.”
The (FTC) Federal Trade Commission was alerted to the existence of a technology known as SilverPush, by the ODT last year. This technology tracks your activities through your device with the use of audio beacons. There’ this tone that is emitted by your TV during commercial breaks, it might not be audible to you, but your phone listens for it. They can use this tone to link the phone and TV to the same person.
Advertisers now use different device-matching techniques, because it is easier to advertise their products to you if they can track your devices accurately. Even the government can apply this technology to track your movements by playing a tone via the TV thereby pinging the phones around and identifying all the people in the vicinity.
There are lots of stories on digital eavesdropping scattered all over the internet. People have come out to complain that some adverts were tailored with conversations they had within hearing of their smartphones.
Facebook was one of the companies accused of this conversation tampering, but it denied the allegations stating that “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed…. We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”
Yet a lot of people were actually convinced that their phone conversations had a huge impact on Facebook’s advertisements.
Professor Jason Hong of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science had this to say to Digital Trends, “there are two possible explanations, it’s either coincidence, or they were browsing on a website and happened to see that topic and then talked about it with friends later on. Facebook is actually linked into lots of websites and news sites around the world, so they do collect data about what content you’re looking at and then base ads off of that. But as far as we know, they’re not listening on the microphone.”
Facebook did not actually state what it does with its audio recordings in that statement, but it operates its business through laser-based advertising targeting and data collection. Audio recording poaching has wider implications than just adverts.
According to De Mooy, “smartphones are small tracking devices.” In his words “When you’re using a free service, you’re paying for it with your information, but the trade-off we’re making is really unclear to most people. The internet that I see is vastly different than the internet you see. The content we see reflects the data that has been collected on us.”
The implication of this is that, your gender can determine the type of job adverts you see, or you might be treated to high-interest loans because of your ethnic group.
How do you address your listening concerns?
The implication of using services like Google Assistant and Siri is that your phone will always be at alert for a keyword, but this is locally processed. Your audio doesn’t start recording until it hears “Hey siri” or “Ok Google”. This is the point where the audio file is recorded and uploaded. If you want to turn off these features you can use this step if you’re using an Android device, go to your settings, click on Google, next click on Search & Now, then Voice, and finally click on “Ok Google” to turn off detection.
According to Hong, “The big companies have a strong incentive to be mostly upfront about what they’re doing because the Federal Trade Commission and other government organizations would fine them if they were using deceptive practices.” He also stated that “there are also a lot of researchers analyzing these kinds of apps.”
Hong had this to say about privacy policies, “Nobody really reads these privacy policies and it would surprise a lot of people just how much data is being collected.”
What is more worrisome is probably the fact that there’s always the chance of a dubious or malicious app switching on your microphone without your knowledge.
Hong explains that “with GPS, at least there’s the little GPS icon, so you know that an app is using it, but with the microphone and other sensor data we don’t really know what’s being captured and what’s not.”
The best thing is to stick to the popular apps and avoid granting microphone access.
Honk’s advice is this: “Don’t be the first penguin in the water. Don’t be the first one to download an app after it gets released, wait for one or two weeks. Google and Apple both have ways of finding malicious apps and removing them.”
You can also review the permissions you granted to some of these apps. For Android, visit Settings, click on Privacy and safety, then App permissions. For iOS, visit settings, and click on Privacy. They both have entry for their microphone, which has a list of all the apps with access. And you should investigate any suspicious looking activity.
Is there cause for concern?
Though audio space is relatively undeveloped, at least compared to some of the other tricks and techniques employed by companies to track our online activities, but it is gradually becoming a legitimate worry.
According to Hong, “As more smartphones, smart TVs, and smart toys start to listen in on us all the time, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to understand where all the data is flowing, because every company wants to connect to its own cloud service. This makes it a real hassle, even for experts, to try and understand what’s going on.”
The CDT is of the opinion that there ought to be some kind of baseline privacy legislation for the protection of consumers, and it’s been trying to convince major companies of the advantages of collecting less data. It only adds to their potential liability. Most of these companies seem determined to collect everything they can lay their hands on with no concrete plans about what to use them for.
We’re aware of the impact of technology in our lives, but good intentions are easily subverted, and people are worried about what the data might be used for in future. People can’t really make informed decisions at present because they’re ignorant of about what is really happening and the implications.
De Mooy’s suggestion is that “if you’re going to use these services on your smartphone, understand that it’s not private. It’s not a personal assistant or friend, it’s a small tracking device. Social apps are meant to collect data and make it public. Pay attention, watch out for default settings, and take action to protect your privacy.”