Is it a myth that our phones are listening to us?

  • Specialists at cyber-security firm Wandera recently conducted online experiments and found no evidence that smartphones or apps were secretly listening to conversations.

    According to the BBC's Joe Tidy, the researchers put two phones - one Samsung phone and one iPhone - into an "audio room". For 30 minutes they played the sound of cat and dog food adverts on loop. They also put two identical phones in a silent room.

    Apps were kept open on the phones, including Facebook, Instagram, Google Chrome, SnapChat, YouTube and Amazon, with full permissions granted to each platform.

    The researchers then looked for ads related to pet food on each platform and webpage they subsequently visited. They also analysed the battery usage and data consumption on the phones during the test phase.

    They repeated the experiment at the same time for three days, and noted no relevant pet food adverts on the "audio room" phones and no significant spike in data or battery usage.

    The activity seen on phones in the "audio room" and the silent rooms were similar.

    James Mack is a systems engineer at Wandera. He said: "We observed that the data from our tests is much lower than the virtual assistant (such as Siri) data over the 30-minute time period, which suggests that the constant recording of conversations and uploading to the cloud is not happening on any of these tested apps.

    "If it was, we'd expect data usage to be as high as the virtual assistants' data consumption.”

    The study found that most of the Android phone apps seem to consume significantly more data in the silent rooms, whereas many Apple iOS apps used more in the audio-filled rooms. Wandera’s analysts say they are unsure why this is but plan to carry on with research into this issue.

    Those in the cybersecurity industry believe that advertisers have sophisticated ways of profiling users without listening in on their conversations.

    Location data, browsing history and tracking pixels, for example all provide enough information to predict what you might be thinking about buying.

    They can also link you up to friends via social media information and guess that you might be interested in the things they are searching for.

    These techniques are constantly improving and evolving, “powered by machine-learning algorithms” according to mobile advertising and security expert Soteris Demetriou, from Imperial College London.

    People have taken to online forums to discuss the study’s findings, with one Reddit user agreeing: “There's also just pure coincidence, which in this case manifests as confirmation bias. No one gives two thoughts about ads that aren't related to them in any way. It's only whenever something happens to hit the mark that people care, which makes it seem a lot more common than it really is”

    More said: “people are really paranoid and really don't think beyond the paranoia,” and “most people provide plenty of data voluntarily by using services like social media.”

    Last June, researchers at Northeastern University in the US state of Massachusetts tested 17,000 mobile apps from various Android app stores around the world.

    They found no evidence of listening - but they did discover some relatively small applications were sending screenshots and even videos of user phone activities to third parties. However this was reportedly done for development purposes and not for advertising.

    The Sun Online’s Miranda Knox however, argued back in May that despite thinking she was being paranoid initially, she is now “100% sure out phones are listening to us”, putting her own experiment for proof to the test.

    Many tech giants are trying to combat these eavesdropping claims, saying they are improving their software’s privacy and issuing public apologies. Apple, for example, apologised earlier this month for keeping audio recordings of interactions between Siri and customers, stating they will not continue this practice. Google’s Android 10 update offers updated privacy settings that are more easily accessible, and Facebook is giving users the option to stop the app from tracking their data.

    However, only time will tell if these actions help to ease the current distrust in tech giants for the future.


    Sources: BBC, Belfast Live, The Sun Online, Reddit

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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