Yes, your phone really IS always listening to you

smartphone frustration-1

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Those oddly pertinent ads on your timeline aren’t just a coincidence; your phone is listening to everything you say.

We’ve all had that experience. You could be at work, or out with family or friends, and you’re discussing some crazy interest of yours. Then boom, there it is – one of your commonly used apps is showing you advertisements for exactly what you were talking about the next time you open the app on your phone.

You shrug it off. You’re just being paranoid. You’ve inadvertently clicked on some link somewhere, probably the same link that planted the seed in your mind about the event in the first place.

It turns out, though, you really aren’t paranoid – your phone IS listening to you.

According to Dr. Peter Henway—the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, and former lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University—the short answer is yes, your phone is always listening.

We are told that our phone only records what’s being said when you issue trigger words like “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google” but, because it needs to listen out for said keywords, it always has its digital ear on and listening.

And this happens for Google Home and Amazon Alexa as well. But that’s a topic for an upcoming article.

With this in mind, I decided to try an experiment. Twice a day for five days, I tried saying a bunch of phrases that could theoretically be used as triggers. Phrases like I’m thinking about taking a weekend vacation, and I could use a new hard drive for my computer. Then I carefully monitored the sponsored posts online for any changes. The changes came literally overnight. Suddenly I was being given ads for weekend travel packages as well as ‘On Sale’ HDDs and SSDs from various manufacturers. A casual conversation with a neighbor about a new phone led to several ads for the new Galaxy S9 he just bought. And although they were all good deals, the whole thing was eye-opening and utterly terrifying.

To help your smartphone process your verbal requests, and understand those all-important keywords, it processes what you say ‘on-device’ instead of via the cloud. This onboard data can then be accessed by any third-party application on your phone with the adequate permissions – such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat apps. It’s totally up to these apps if they want to use the data or not, and what they want to use it for.

Electronic markers, such as cookies, are used by websites to gather information on users’ online activity, which is then passed on to advertisers for personalized digital advertisement.

The practice is not illegal, however, under the 1998 Data Protection Act, a person must actively agree to their data being collected and used for advertisements. Thus the need for you to “agree” to all the permissions the app asks for.

But … surely everyone looks at all the permissions you allow an app to have when it’s installed?

Right ???

And that’s the trouble, hardly ever do we read all of the permissions we give an app, much less adjust them after installation. So there really is no way to be sure about what’s happening. But is this necessarily a cause for concern?

Remember, Facebook recently got in trouble for selling private information without your permission? Turns out, everyone has given Facebook permission to capture, catalogue, and sell their personal information when they signed on for an account. And when you install such apps on your smartphone, you give permissions for it to collect even more data from other apps you already have.

Henway argues that, while it’s certainly unnerving to see advertising change so dramatically based on what you’ve been saying, it’s not really any different to companies like Google using our web browsing history to target ads.

So by now everyone knows websites and phone apps collect and resell our personal information.

But now we are learning that our smartphones and digital assistants are Always-On-And-Always-Listening.

Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!


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