I first discovered my phone eavesdropping on me six months ago. My wife received a gift certificate for an online women’s shoe company. We were sitting in the living room, watching something on TV while she shopped the shoe company’s products on her laptop. We got in a discussion about what color was best. I suggested red. She favored a black and white herringbone-like shoe.
After she placed that order, I began seeing ads for this shoe company online, particularly on my Twitter feed. I knew that my search histories would trigger ads, but I had never searched for this shoe company before. In fact, before my conversation about my wife’s order, I had never heard of the company. And here I was getting targeted. Was my phone listening and targeting ads to me based on my conversations?
A similar thing happened a few months later. A friend told me about a great pair of socks he had bought and about the company. Soon after, just like with the shoes, I started seeing ads online for these socks, though I had never once searched for them.
It seems our phones are listening to us. And you don’t need to wear a tinfoil hat to believe it.
After the shoe incident, I searched the subject and turned up a story on VICE news in which the author had a very similar experience and talked to a cyber security expert who confirmed that, yes, our phones are listening to us. While most of what we say won’t be recorded unless there’s a trigger – for example, you say “Hey Siri” – other third-party apps like Facebook or Twitter can have their own triggers.
Last week, a study by Privacy International, a data research group, discovered that many applications – from the popular language learning app Duolingo to Spotify – were actively sending data to Facebook servers the moment the application was launched. From the Cambridge Analytica fiasco to a recent New York Times exposé on the collection and sale of location data, the picture is quite clear. Our phones are reporting our every move and most of our words to whoever wants to pay for it.
I don’t think everyone should run out and cover the microphones of their smart phones. There are still ample benefits to the remarkable technology we all around with us in our pocket. But the public needs to get smart about just how many permissions we’re granting to the companies who create software for our phones and monetize it by collecting data it can turn around and sell. In Europe, regulators are well ahead of us in recognizing the erosion of privacy. These regulators know that tech companies will not be clear about their practices unless they’re forced to do so.
Guessing I’m about to shop for shoes based on a conversation might not seem so big a deal, but what other conversations are getting noticed by the software on my phone?
I’d rather not have to guess.