With the internet and wireless technologies playing an increasingly intimate role in our lives, consumers are becoming more and more anxious about the possibility that our electronic devices and digital footprints are being used for recording our behavior and tracking us. Smartphones, of course, have become a central focus in the debate over privacy issues and the possibility of corporations or government entities using our personal tech devices for harvesting data or even recording and spying on us.
Smartphones are the perfect medium for such activity because they have built-in microphones and often include virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana that are activated by voice — not to mention that many smartphones use apps that require users to grant permission to activate the device’s microphone in their privacy agreements. This has led to widespread speculation that companies are eavesdropping on smartphone users 24/7 to help improve profits via targeted marketing.
— Digital Trends (@DigitalTrends) January 15, 2017
Rumors that Facebook Messenger, for instance, was recording private conversations even when users were not using the app or their phone gained traction in May of 2016 when Professor Kelli Burns of the University of South Florida told The Independent that her Facebook newsfeed and the targeted ads that appear in it seemed to be affected by conversations she had when not using her smartphone. To test the theory, she mentioned specific keyword topics while near the smartphone. According to her, ads for products related to those conversations began showing up in her feed soon after.
Burns acknowledged that her little experiment was not conclusive evidence that Facebook was listening to her private conversations via her smartphone, but she added that we should not be surprised if the social media giant was doing so.
Facebook promptly denied it was using smartphones for recording private conversations in a post on the company’s online “newsroom.”
“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.”
That does not necessarily mean that smartphones are not recording users’ data without their knowledge.
“Smartphones are small tracking devices,” Michelle De Mooy, Acting Director, Privacy & Data Project for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) recently told Digital Trends. “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.”
The information gathered from smartphones is often combined with other data, such as online activity from laptops and PCs. For instance, a user’s Google MyActivity page logs activity across devices based on the user’s Google ID.
“If you’re logged into your Google account, it will show all your activity across Google’s services, from Chrome and Search to Android and YouTube,” Digital Trends notes. “Tap Filter by date & product at the top, choose Voice & Audio, and then hit Search. If you’ve ever used voice search on Google, you’ll see a list of audio recordings that you can play back and listen to right now.”
There’s a surprising amount of data, both from users’ computers and their smartphones, there. Think along the lines of an internet search history that also has the dates and times of when users sent texts from their smartphones, though MyActivity does not appear to store the actual text messages. A user can also view a map of everywhere they have used Google services under while logged in with their user ID.
Our smartphones spying on us? Woah!?
Engadget: 2016’s biggest privacy threat: Your phone. https://t.co/0tjFyTLQPa
— Dale G. Israel (@dalegisrael) December 17, 2016
De Mooy points out how easy it is to forget that all of the data from smartphones and other devices is often connected.
“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,” she explains. “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.”
Companies may not be intentionally tracking or monitoring users by recording their conversations with smartphones just yet, but they are definitely gathering and storing a substantial amount of data.
[Featured Image by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images]