Is my phone spying on me?
- Smartphones are a way of life, but is there a cost?
- Yes of course there's a cost, they're very expensive. But is there also a cost to your privacy?
- Is your phone spying on you?
When you live in a time of amazing technological advances, it can sometimes be easy to forget that we walk around with little supercomputers in our pockets. And while many people use those supercomputers for innocent activities (like social media, finding the best broadband and home phone bundle plans, or simply taking pics of their junk) there are concerns that some less scrupulous peeps use that technology to see where you're going and who you're talking to.
So... is your phone spying on you?
The simple answer is yes. Sorry. It's creepy and it sucks and somehow we're all pretty complacent about it. But here's what you should know...
COMPANIES ARE WATCHING YOU
According to a recent investigation published by The New York Times, at least 75 major companies receive anonymous but precise location data from various apps whose users enable location services to, with several of those businesses claiming to track up to 200 million mobile devices.
"These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior" writes the report.
"It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year."
THEY ARE ALSO LISTENING
On top of that, don't forget that smartphones have microphones. In an interview with Vice, cybersecurity consultant Dr. Peter Hannay advised that in order for smartphones to take voice commands (ie. "Hey Siri"), they require certain trigger words so that they can record, translate, and send what you're saying back to your service provider. Though these triggers are necessary for the feature to work, no one knows exactly how many trigger words are programmed into your phone; for all we know, it could be thousands.
"From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to servers but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are,” Dr. Hannay told Vice. "Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.
"Seeing Google are open about it, I would personally assume the other companies are doing the same.
"Really, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. It makes good sense from a marketing standpoint, and their end-use agreements and the law both allow it, so I would assume they’re doing it, but there’s no way to be sure."
It is worth noting that Facebook officially denied these rumours in an official statement...
"Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about. We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates."
But that's only one major conglomerate with a confirmed history of harvesting the personal data of millions of its users without conset so they could sell it to Cambridge Analytica who used it for political purposes, so I guess take that with a grain of salt.
HOW TO LIMIT YOUR APPS SPYING ON YOU
On an iOS...
1. Go to Settings
2. Go Location Services
3. Within Location Services you'll see a list of all your apps; to the right of that, you will have the option to adjust location access. The three options given are "NEVER", "ALWAYS" and "WHILE USING THE APP" (the latter you might consider for apps like Weather, Maps, Emergency Services etcetera).
On an Android...
1. Go to Settings.
2. Go to Security & Location
3. Under the Privacy section, tap on Location.
4. Tap App Level Permissions.
5. Within App Level Permissions you'll see a list of all your apps; to the right of that, you will have the option to toggle left or right to allow or deny the app your location access. (At the time of writing, Android does not offer a "While Using the App" feature).
DON'T FORGET YOUR OTHER COMPUTERS
This extends to any smart device that has internet access. In fact, if you have a desktop or laptop, you may want to think about placing a piece of tape over the camera to stop outsiders from peeking in. If that sounds overly paranoid, keep in mind that it's advice that came straight from the war horse's mouth; former Director of the FBI James Comey himself openly advocated such measures of security back in 2016.
"There’s some sensible things you should be doing, and that’s one of them" advised Comey.
"You go into any government office and we all have the little camera things that sit on top of the screen.
"They all have a little lid that closes down on them. You do that so that people who don’t have authority don’t look at you. I think that’s a good thing."