Are advertisers using your microphone to spy on you?
We’re all used to targeted advertising by now. If you Google a product, or read about a subject, you’re likely to get ads based on your preferences and search history.
It’s a gray area morally, but at least they can be helpful occasionally. So while it’s annoying, we generally give consent for cookies without much further thought.
It’s a sad fact of life, but we’ve become desensitized to the ads. After all, nothing on the internet is completely free.
However, accessing your smartphone mic to listen to and record your interests is an entirely different story. How often does it happen, and what can you do to stay safe?
What do we know?
Scarily, it’s easy enough to access your mic with the right know how. Every OS is susceptible in some shape or form, depending on how much you care to keep your phone secure.
Edward Snowden claimed the NSA could take over and listen to any device back in 2014. A decade ago, his claims probably would have been dismissed as paranoid fantasy*, but now we know better.
*In fact, I remember a number of posts on conspiracy sites back in the mid-2000’s that said the government and various spy agencies have unprecedented access to our personal information. The posts authors were thought to be crazy or paranoid.
In any case, it’s somewhat excusable for spies to be capable of spying, even if their methods are illegal. But there’s no way advertisers should be able to use similar methods. Especially not to sell us a new product, or shove a service in our face if they hear us discussing it.
Who Does it?
In June 2016, University of South Florida Professor Kelli Burns hit the headlines when she gave an interview with the Independent, claiming Facebook could be using microphones to gather more personal data.
The social media giant responded with a short statement dismissing her 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. We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”
The problem is, not every company is as ethical as Facebook. When a corporation who admitted to subjecting users to ‘psychological experiments’ wants to distance themselves from a practice, you can tell it’s a no-no.
Other companies care less about PR, and mic’s are probably more likely to provide semi-accurate data.
How could your phone be compromised?
The easiest way to gain access to a microphone is through an app which has permission to use it. There are lots of stories on the web about smartphones listening to their owners, but no real proof.
In terms of anecdotal evidence, I remember discussing Babelfish in passing recently with a friend. It was a face to face conversation, with my smartphone sat on the table in front of me.
Lo and behold, I saw a targeted ad for the site the very next time I was reading an article on my phone. I’m constantly bombarded by ads for sporting events and new tech because of my interests, but never for anything language related…
It could all be a coincidence, couldn’t it? The alternative is a scary prospect. Was my device listening out for keywords, in an attempt to sell me stuff? Helpful it might be, but it’s definitely creepy.
The BBC got in contact with a pair of cyber security experts back in 2016 and tasked them with creating an app that could log conversations. They were able to make the app relatively quickly, in just a couple of days.
“We gave ourselves permission to use the microphone on the phone, set up a listening server on the internet, and everything that microphone heard on that phone, wherever it was in the world, came to us and we could then have sent back customised ads.”
It sounds familiar to what I think happened to me. But still, there’s no proof. (I’m personally convinced that a free voice recording app was the culprit. It had access to my iPhone mic, and the targeted ads stopped immediately after it was deleted.)
On the subject of iPhones, jailbroken ones will always be more susceptible. This is because an app can be hidden within your files, making it hard to locate and delete when found out.
How to safeguard your mobile device
The most important thing is to see just who has access to your mic in the first place. Many have no need to be listening, so turning off permissions is where you should start.
- Tap Settings, and tap Privacy.
- Tap Microphone, and you’ll be able to toggle the settings in this menu.
- Tap Settings, and tap Apps.
- Press the Gear Icon, and choose App Permissions.
- From here you’ll be able to see each app which has microphone access. Hit the toggles to change permissions. (The steps in this method may vary depending on your model and software.)
Either way, it’s better to be careful when setting permissions. If in doubt about an app, you can always return to the menu above to toggle the settings.
There’s no getting back any personal data once it’s gone, so do the basics and make sure to keep your microphone secure. Furthermore, there’s no harm in deleting any apps and software you no longer use.
Be especially careful when downloading APK’s or using a jailbroken Apple device. The jailbreaking reasons are discussed above, but anything downloaded from the internet has the potential to be bad news.
On Android, hackers also have taken to sending phishing text messages that link to downloadable apps. Once installed, they have free rein to start accessing your device.
There’s a recurring theme here. Dodgy apps can be dangerous if they’re not downloaded from a trustworthy source. Then again, so can legitimate ones.
We live In a world where Alexa is expected to be listening to your every beck and call. But how safe do these microphones keep our personal information?
It’s tough to say, although you’ll make it harder by staying proactive. Look out for any suspicious ads, and get rid of any apps that you don’t trust personally.
Despite some valid worries, the majority of us are open to the idea of microphone’s that are always listening.
We trust companies to keep our information safe, and the services are sometimes useful. Shady developers could easily abuse that trust, so be careful.
There’s always a chance that it could all be coincidence, but I think it’s pretty unlikely.
It’s best to stay encrypted when you can, and never let anyone else use your device. The sheer number of spying apps on the market is perverse, and there’s no sense in letting someone directly download and install something dodgy.
Have you been affected by the phenomena? Let us know in the comments below!