Many of us as kids wanted to play as secret agents. Listening in on a conversation without being detected was the biggest challenge. But when we were young, we were quickly caught trying to spy on mum and dad at the breakfast table. But it’s not just kids whose imaginations are caught by the idea of spying. Companies are also eavesdropping on us using cutting-edge technology without needing to send a corporate spy to hide behind our living room door – all they need is our smartphone. To find out how companies manage to listen in on us using our mobile phones and what you can do about it, read on:
The feeling of being monitored – paranoia or legitimate concern?
They say that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. So do we really have grounds to suspect that people are listening to what we say? How can we tell? You’ve probably had the following happen to you before: you’re scrolling through your Instagram timeline and ads are played to you. An aftershave, sports equipment – everything you’ve been looking at online recently. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But suddenly, an ad appears about lipstick. You’re confused because you’ve never looked up lipstick as it doesn’t interest you.
You quickly start to suspect that your smartphone has heard you saying something. You spoke about lipstick just yesterday evening over dinner with a friend at a restaurant. Your friend’s wife had been waxing lyrical about her new favourite lipstick colour. That must have been it, right?
In December 2017, the New York Times published a report which frightened many smartphone users: around 1,000 apps from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store had been eavesdropping on their users. Many of these digital spies are disguised as harmless games. Their purpose isn’t to listen to private conversations but discover your television viewing habits. They say the recordings are just used for advertising purposes.
Eavesdropping mobile phone apps?
It’s suspected that the smartphone's microphone switches on without the user's knowledge. And it works like this: when we install a new app onto our phone and stare at the screen in anticipation, we miss an important factor – reading the terms of service. Since we’re so focused on our new app and everything it can do, we get impatient. It’s just like tearing off the wrapping paper on a present. Unless that is, you’re the sort of person who takes a good look at what’s printed on the wrapping paper? Probably not as you’re more interested in what’s under the paper. App developers also rely on this sense of anticipation and hope you don’t read the terms and conditions.
Once the app is installed and the T&Cs have been accepted, your smartphone has granted official permission for them to listen in on you. Incidentally, app developers are obliged to publish information about eavesdropping by the smartphone in the app description in the major app stores. Apps also have a double opt-in method built-in that requires you to give your consent twice before they start listening in. You give the first consent to the app before installing it and then again when you first use the app, shortly after launching it. The technology that allows many apps to eavesdrop is called ACR technology: Automated Content Recognition. It allows an app to listen in on your TV viewing habits via your smartphone’s microphone.
Can I protect myself against eavesdropping attacks?
Since these eavesdropping attacks are technically feasible, everyone also has a way of protecting themselves from them. The most drastic way of achieving this is not having any apps installed on your phone. But as this would be unthinkable in our modern world, the only option is: read, read and read some more. And: reject access to the microphone by every app. There is currently no exhaustive list of all apps that listen to your smartphone. However, if you want to bring out your inner Sherlock Holmes, you can search your app store for “Alphonso Software” or “Alphonso Automated”. This will increase your chances of finding out which apps are likely to pull this trick.