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Your smartphone listening

Guest Contributor, October 30, 2018

It is possible that smartphones are listening to our conversations, even when the screen is turned off and we are not actively using it at the moment. Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, many people have reported talking to an individual about some kind of good they have never searched on their phone before and soon after notice an advertisement for that item in some forum. Of course, the phone was near them. In a BBC technology report, Zoe Kleinman reported that she learned of her friend’s death through Google when his name automatically popped up in the Google search box on her phone. Another user stated he discussed medicine his friend takes, and the next day got advertisements for the product. Some companies, like Google and Facebook, have vehemently denied engaging in this practice, stating that constant streaming of audio from so many different users would be too expensive and too overwhelming to gather and analyze. Others argue that companies don’t need to engage in this practice because they gather data about people in less insidious ways. But what exactly describes the eerily accurate advertisements, especially when the item advertised was not previously searched on one’s phone? Professor Jason Hong of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University mentioned that malicious apps can turn on an individual’s microphone without the person knowing. He suggests that microphone access should be denied unless the user trusts the app or website and waiting two weeks after an app is released because Google and Apple often filter out the malicious ones. Over 250 apps available on the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store are programmed with the ability to mysteriously turn on the microphone function in the user’s phone. The apps were reported to listen for audio from television shows to target ads based on what the person was watching. These apps supposedly did not listen to human speech, but how can we be sure? Dr. Peter Hannay, the senior security consultant for the cybersecurity firm Asterisk, stated that phones do listen to our conversations but need “triggers” such as “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google”. But when it came to apps, he was unsure what the triggers could be, stating there could be “thousands”.

            Passive listening could be a huge problem for individuals working in careers that constantly convey sensitive information. Namely doctors, lawyers, or journalists. But even for other people, this can have huge implications for their personal autonomy. Just knowing that your phone can be recording you at any moment can make anyone feel violated and like privacy is non-existent. These apps also do not describe what a user is consenting to just by asking them if Facebook, for instance, can have access to the microphone. Once access is granted for any app, it is possible that the user has consented to microphone use when the app is active or inactive.

But all is not lost, it seems to be accepted among technologists that the individuals with the greatest risk of targeted phone listening include those who: have untrustworthy or new apps, allow microphone access to those apps, have Siri activated or use an Amazon Echo, or even have conversations too close or right next to their phone.

The Office of Privacy and Data Protection announces beta testing of “Privacy Modeling,” a new web application that identifies the privacy laws relevant to the product or service you wish to create.

Go to Privacy Modelling App

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