Is Your Phone Listening In On Your Conversations?

Is Your Phone Listening In On Your Conversations?

You know the drill – you’re chatting a weekend away with the girls, and within a couple of hours your Facebook and Instagram feeds are flooded with ads for cheap flights to Ibiza. Is it just a coincidence, or is your phone actually eavesdropping on all your conversations?

So tell us straight – are our phones listening to us?

To put it simply, yes. It seems crazy and even a little bit scary that you can say something out loud and your phone listens in, but YouTubers are proving this theory to be right – in one video posted to the video sharing site, a couple pick a random subject which they had never talked about or searched online before, and spoke about it in close proximity of their phone. In this case, it was the words “cat food”, and in the hours that followed, their phones began targeting them with ads for the exact thing they had been discussing.

This might seem like nothing but a conspiracy theory created to make people want to throw their phones in the sea and live off the grid for the rest of their lives, but according to researchers from Northeastern University in the US, there is significant truth in this – and not only that, your phone could be watching you, too.

How do they do it?

Computer science experts tested over 17,000 of the most popular Android apps in order to find out if any of them recorded audio from the phone’s microphone. According to the report, out of the apps tested, more than half had permissions enabled to access the phone’s camera and microphone, meaning any conversations had in front of the device could, in theory, be recorded – although researchers were certain in their assertion that your phones are never secretly listening to you.

But that’s not the only thing the academics found – several of the apps they tested had taken video recordings of screenshots of what people were doing, and these were sent off to third-party domains. In particular, an app called GoPuff, which delivers junk food to those with the munchies, was found to be sending screenshots and videos of what people were doing in the app to third parties – including a screen where you’d enter personal information such as your postcode. GoPuff’s privacy policy has now been changed to reflect the fact that “personally identifiable information” may be collected.

Do we need to worry?

It sounds terrifying, but Dr Peter Henway, Senior Security Consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, told Vice that it’s not as bad as you’d first think. For your phone to sit up and pay attention to what you’re saying, Dr Henway says it needs a trigger – like when you say “Hey Siri”. Without the triggers, any data you provide is kept within the confines of your phone. But apps like Facebook can access ‘non-triggered’ data and can use it how they please – although Facebook strongly denies listening in to your conversations.
According to Dr Henway, the only people who are at risk of being taken advantage of by their phones are journalists or lawyers or anyone who deals with sensitive information – then, as most app companies are based in the US, it can be harvested by American government agencies like the CIA, whether it’s legal in the country you’re in or not. Otherwise, don’t worry too much – no one is going to be collecting your data but advertisers.

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