Targeted advertising on the internet is nothing new. By now we all know that, if we search for something on Google, we are going to see pop up ads and Facebook posts about the very same thing very quickly. And it makes sense! I only want to see adverts for stuff I’m interested in at the end of the day. But the year is 2019, and more and more people are starting to tell a more sinister story.
It goes a little something like this – I talked to my friend about something, I wasn’t on my phone and I had never searched for this topic on the internet before, and yet I am getting tailored adverts about it on all my apps. It’s like my phone was listening to me.
Scary right? The thought that an inanimate object could be eavesdropping on our conversations, recording them and passing information on is alarming. But how close to the truth is this idea? Aren’t we just sounding a bit paranoid? I thought so, but while the year definitely is 2019, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s 1984.
In a roundabout way the answer is: yes, your phone is listening to you. But before you start throwing out all of your electronics and wearing a tin foil hat, there is some science behind it that may put your mind at ease, at least a little bit. First, let’s think about certain AI applications like Siri or Alexa. They only start acting on what they ‘hear’ when you say a certain phrase. ‘Hey Siri, what’s the weather like today?’ ‘OK Google, play some jazz music’ ‘Alexa, turn on the lights’. These are called trigger phrases or trigger words. But in order to ‘hear’ these triggers, they must always have access to your microphone. They must always be ‘listening out’ for these phrases. But it is like any form of voice activation – they can’t act until they are triggered. That’s the good news.
Now think about the apps on your phone. How many of them ask for permission to access your microphone or camera? Are there any that you wouldn’t necessarily expected to need this kind of access and have you ever stopped to think why they ask for it? It turns out that any application, so long as they have permission to access your microphone, can utilise thousands of these trigger words to pick up on what you’re talking about! Plane Tickets. Wedding Dress. Life insurance. The list is endless and general phrases like this are perfect for your phone to pick up on. An experiment conducted in 2016 by Ken Munro and his colleague David Lodge from Pen Test Partners proves just how easy it is to build an app like this (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-35639549) and, with technology constantly evolving, it stands to reason that any kind of ‘spy tech’ like this is now more accurate than ever.
How common this kind of thing is actually taking place, however, is still up for debate. Brands like Facebook and Google have fervently denied collecting or using data in this way (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/phone-listening-facebook-google-ads/ https://newsroom.fb.com/news/h/facebook-does-not-use-your-phones-microphone-for-ads-or-news-feed-stories/). But when we consider that there have been instances of private conversations being leaked by these ‘helpful’ gadgets (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/amazon-alexa-recorded-conversation) and that privacy laws not quite caught up with today’s tech, people are understandably still concerned.
Remember: you are in control over what these apps can and cannot access. Check your settings, read the Privacy Policies. We are all guilty of hitting that ‘I agree’ button a little too quickly sometimes…
Thank you to our very own PI Alison Harris for another great blog post!
Pop over to Alison’s website for more great advice! https://missaminvestigations.co.uk/