Most people with a smartphone would’ve experienced the paranoid sensation that you are being watched or that someone is listening to your conversations through your phone. It gets even creepier when you go online and ads for items that you’ve spoken about start appearing. While this may seem very convenient at first, the frequency of it without an explanation adds to the paranoia that technology might be the gateway to our loss of privacy.
The truth of the matter is that in order to enjoy the modern benefits of having the whole world in the palm of our hands, we have had to sacrifice a few things, mostly privacy. While companies like Facebook vehemently deny listening to our conversations, the data mining controversies of 2018 paired with the fact that Facebook owns Whatsapp and Instagram, tell a different tale.
Google is a little more open about it and because the laws in most countries have not advanced enough to really tackle cybersecurity, they’re well within their rights.
So how does your smartphone “spy” on you?
Technically your smartphone does not inherently have the capabilities to spy on anyone without certain triggers. Vice’s Sam Nichols spoke to Dr. Peter Henway — the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, and former lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University about these topics. They uncovered that when you say “Hey Siri” or “okay Google” those act as triggers to process data outside of your phone otherwise without these triggers, anything you say cannot technically be recorded or overhead on your phone. The real culprits you need to be wary of are third-party apps on your phone, which you give certain permissions to, to access “non-triggered” data. These include apps like Facebook and Whatsapp. Whether they use this data or not, is up to them and we’ve seen that they have indeed taken advantage of this up until this year.
Dr. Henyway goes on to explain how these apps access this information:
“From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to [other apps like Facebook’s] servers but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are. Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”
How do you make sure the apps on your phone aren’t spying on you?
1. Check you’re the permissions on your apps. Go to your settings and click application manager and then go to each app you have downloaded to check what permission it has. Some apps may have the microphone on or have access to your contact list etc.
2. If you’re an Android user, apps like GlassWire for Android can help by showing you which apps are going online, when and how often, so you can build up a picture of their activity. It also monitors your Wi-Fi activity, mobile usage and data limits, potentially saving you money.
3. For iPhone users, see your app permission by going to Settings > Privacy. Here you will see a list of items starting with Location Services, Contacts, Calendars and more. Tap Location Services and you’ll see a list of all of your installed apps, along with their level of location access. Some will say “Never,” others will say “While Using” or “Always.” Go through and change these settings as you deem necessary.