A journalist claims he has evidence that his private conversations have been monitored by his smartphone. Sam Nichols, a journalist from Vice.com, came to a surprising conclusion after a conversation with a friend took an odd turn. Sam told his friend that he would like to visit Japan and was soon alarmed to find sponsored posts about Japan on his Facebook account. This prompted him to begin an experiment: he started to talk about university classes and clothes and waited to see if he would have similar results. As he suspected, he soon began to see paid advertisements for these products and services. Sam’s conclusion is that his private conversations have been monitored through his smartphone in order to receive personalized ads.
We are, in part, addicted to our mobile devices. We use them any time of the day, anywhere, and most of the time, we believe our data and our calls are private. We consider ourselves entitled to content privacy and we are not even aware they could record our intimate conversations without our permission. However, Sam’s experiment may prove that some companies can and do record us without our permission and it’s far from clear what they’re doing with the data they receive.
Can our smartphone listen to everything we say?
Cybersecurity experts say it’s not uncommon for smartphones or other devices to listen to everything we say. Voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana are common on modern smartphones, as we use them every day to search for places or facts, set reminders, and fix appointments. They react to certain keywords, interpreted as voice commands by the devices, such as “Hey Siri” or “OK Google.” Smartphones are always listening for these keywords, but they only start recording after hearing the voice command. Experts say that the data obtained through this process is not sold to other companies, but that it is used by certain applications, like Facebook, to customize ads. Just like the famous cookies that monitor our online searches.
What do companies say about these claims?
The fact that our smart devices may eavesdrop on our private conversation is not a new or rare myth. People seem to think that if they allow Facebook or other applications access to the microphone and the camera of the device, they will be monitored without being notified. This may not be completely false, because some apps do just that, but Facebook claims it doesn’t. As early as 2016, Facebook denied these claims.
“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,” Facebook stated. Mark Zuckerberg himself has recently reiterated the idea, calling the claim that Facebook records and uses audio data for ads a “conspiracy theory.” Facebook’s chairman and chief executive officer was asked about this as part of his testimony before US politicians in Congress, where he was asked about the company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
There’s no smoke without fire
Considering Facebook’s response, as well as other big companies’ quest for greater transparency, one may dismiss claims similar to the one made by Sam Nichols as paranoid. But even if big companies like Facebook are being honest with their customers, the idea that applications access the microphone and the camera of the device to monitor users without permission is not completely false. Spanish soccer league La Liga has recently updated its official application to request access to users’ microphone and GPS settings. If allowed, the app goes on to process users’ audio recordings in an attempt to identify the public places that broadcast soccer games without a license. The new feature was officially confirmed in a statement issued by La Liga officials.
Considering the fact that GDPR rules are now active across Europe, it may be useful to consider if new actions are needed in order to provide users with greater transparency and protection for their data. It seems likely that advertisers have absolutely no access to the data and that the big companies are only using it to help target ads if they do. While Facebook claims it only accesses the microphone of your device if you have given your app permission to do so and if you are using a specific feature that requires audio, recent news has confirmed that some apps process users’ audio recordings for their own specific needs.