Identity Theft

Are Smartphones Listening to Our Conversations?

Privacy is becoming a scarce commodity in our technology-based world.  We’ve known for years that cell phone conversations are not necessarily private.  Cell phones can be easily hacked, and spy shops everywhere sell listening devices that can be used to overhear conversations.  Now, there is a growing concern among smart phone owners that our cell phones are eavesdropping on our private conversations.  Not just telephone conversations; the face-to-face conversations we have with friends and family in our homes, offices and restaurants have become the focus of concern.  There is a growing body of empirical evidence that our smart phone microphones are eavesdropping and using the information they collect to focus advertising on specific wants.

Is there any truth to the allegation that cell phones are listening to our conversations?  The experts disagree.  Google, Facebook and the other technology giants deny the charge.  Yet, some experts refuse to believe the denial.  They say the technology is available and eavesdropping would be fairly simple to do.  Other experts say the tech giants already collect so much personal information on each of us that there is no need to bug our phones.  Who is right?  This article will explore the allegations and the counter-arguments so you can draw your own conclusion.

The Anecdotal Evidence That Cell Phones Are Listening.

There is a ton of anecdotal evidence on the internet.  Karlrocks23 posted his concerns on Reddit.  He said he and his wife were at home talking, and he mentioned a new Nespresso shop that opened nearby.  He was not a coffee drinker and had never tried Nespresso.  The next day, all his ads on Google chrome were about Nespresso.  A woman wrote about a similar event involving her Google Now television recommendations.  (Google Now is an alternative to Siri).  She would constantly get news and information about TV shows she liked to watch even though she never used the internet to search for spoilers and other information on her favorite shows.  She wondered if her phone, sitting nearby, was picking up audio from her television.  Then, she accidently left her phone at her mother’s house.  Suddenly, all the Google Now recommendations and news stories were about her mom’s favorite shows – a completely different set of programs from the ones she watched.  Was it mere coincidence?

There are thousands of these stories on the internet, but is there any merit to the claims?  Google and Facebook adamantly deny using smartphone microphones to listen to conversations.  Some experts say the idea is nonsense.  Others are not so sure.

Technology Companies Already Collect Enormous Amounts of Personal Data.

Technology companies and large retailers already collect tons of personal data and use algorithms to figure out what appeals to you and others like you.  David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto finds the notion of cell phones eavesdropping to be unlikely.  He said: “I think what happens is people don’t realize that their clickstream path is actually extremely informative of the thought processes that are going on in your mind.”

The average person has no idea how much data retailers and tech companies collect.  Google admits it has access to “70 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the United States.” Google, Facebook, and others use hidden tracking technologies to follow which web pages you and your friends visit.  They use the data they collect to better target you with advertising.  Google has trackers on 76 percent of websites; Facebook tracks 23 percent.  The tech giants monitor the web pages you visit and track your online purchases.  They then use their algorithms to predict your interests and target their advertising.  John Pracejus, director of the University of Alberta School of Retailing said: “People underestimate the degree to which their online activities are being monitored.”

 Google admits that it scanned user emails and used the data for advertising.  In July of 2017, Google promised it would stop reading its 1.2 billion users’ emails.  Has the tech giant ended the practice of scanning emails?  Who knows?  Regardless, Google, Facebook and others are still monitoring online activity and using it to refine their advertising algorithms.  According to John Pracejus, “The algorithm is better at knowing how things you think about are related than you are in terms of your own thought process because they have information across millions of people and you only have access to your own experience.”   There is no doubt online monitoring and targeted advertising have crossed over into the creepy realm.

The Technology to Monitor Conversations is Readily Available.

Cybersecurity expert Ken Munro, in association with David Lodge from Pen Test Partners, developed an app that would record everything said within the vicinity of a smartphone and display the text on a monitor.  The phone could be sitting on a table or elsewhere in the same room as the speaker.  The phone was turned on, but not actively in use.  The researchers used Google Android for their experiment and gave themselves permission to use the phone’s microphone and set up a listening server on the internet that recorded everything said in the room.  David Lodge explained that much of the code they used was available either on the Google operating system or in the public domain.  The eavesdropping caused minimal drain on the phone’s battery, so it would not have been apparent to the phone’s owner that it had been used.  The experiment demonstrates that eavesdropping technology is available and feasible.

Even if Google and Facebook Aren’t Listening, There is a Bigger Risk that Hackers Are.

Smartphones are more than telephones.  We use them to set appointments, search for answers, find locations, and handle our email.  Virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana are available on most smartphones.   Those applications require microphone access as do many other apps and games available for your phone.  Having microphone access turned on may be an invitation to hackers.  Michelle De Mooy, Acting Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy & Data Project refers to smartphones as “small tracking devices.”  They tell the world where you are, where you’ve been, who your friends are, and what interests you have. 

In 2015, the CDT alerted the Federal Trade Commission to a technology called SilverPush.  In March of 2016, the FTC issued warnings to 12 companies using the SilverPush code in their apps that they may be in violation of the privacy rules in FTC Act.  SilverPush uses the microphone on your smartphone to detect ultrasonic signals embedded in the audio content of TVs and other electronic devices.  The information acquired can be used to monitor your location, your shopping habits, and TV watching habits.

Advertisers have been actively using SilverPush and related technologies, but the potential hacking implications are far reaching and potentially more sinister.  Any government or criminal enterprise that is interested in knowing who you meet with and who you contact can use this technology.  They simply play a tone through the television and ping every phone in the room, thus, identifying every person in the room. 

Even if you turn off the microphone on your smartphone, there are malicious apps that can turn the microphone back on and use it to overhear your conversations.  Some people have become so concerned that they leave their smartphone in another room and close the door when they want to ensure privacy.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Privacy

As smart devices proliferate, it is becoming more and more difficult to track data flow, to police and protect personal privacy.  As stated by Dr. Jason Hong of the School for Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University: “As more smartphones, smart TVs, and smart toys start to listen in on us all the time, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to understand where all the data is flowing, because every company wants to connect to its own cloud service.  This makes it a real hassle, even for experts, to try and understand what’s going on.”  That leaves the ball in our court.  We must do the work to protect our own personal privacy.  If you have a virtual assistant on your phone or in your home, turn off the voice detection feature when you are not using it. 

The tech giants have a legal incentive to be upfront about how much data they are collecting, but their idea of transparency and ours may be very different.  The privacy policy for your device is where you will find disclosures about the data they collect.  Read the privacy policy on your various devices.  The truth is that very few people read privacy policies. They tend to be long, dense and complicated.  But, if you do take the time to read them, you may be shocked at how much data is being collected.

You should also take the time to review the permissions you have already given to apps on your phone.  On Android, you would go into settings, then privacy and safety, and then access app permissions.  On Apple phones, go to settings and then privacy.  Both systems have a setting for microphones.  That is where you will find all the apps on your phone that have access to the microphone.

Another safety precaution you can take is to wait a while before downloading new apps.  Wait for at least two weeks after the new app is released.  That allows Google and Apple time to weed out any malicious apps and malware and remove them.

Despite your best efforts, there are still privacy risks.  Some experts predict the next big wave of electronic products will be those intended to thwart privacy invasions.  John Pracejus defines the issue facing us all: “How much privacy are you willing to trade for convenience, is really I think the big question of the next five years.”


The privacy policy for your smartphone




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