Is your phone really listening to you? Testing on new phone shows it ‘does not even need to’

For years, skeptics have long believed their smartphones are secretly listening in on them, taking note of conversations so that they can sell them products and services they swear they’ve only mentioned in private.

Many users of Apple, Google, Samsung, and other devices are convinced everything they say is being recorded and point to pop-up ads they’ve received for things they’ve casually mentioned to friends or family as their phones sat supposedly sleeping nearby as proof they are being spied upon.

But is it true?

Well, the Daily Mail decided to test the claims against Android devices using a “freshly-factory-reset Samsung phone” and a newly-created Google account.

Their conclusion?

Even though Google Assistant may be constantly listening for your commands, it doesn’t bother trying to sell you stuff based on your private conversations for one simple reason: “It’s collecting so much information that it does not even need to.”

“We created a fictitious person named Robin, 22, and made a fake Facebook account for him to use,” reports. “After spending several days trying to bait the device into giving us ads for European vacations and floor sealant, the device would not react to our buzzwords.”

For two days, the outlet’s tech correspondent, Rob Waugh, mentioned the names of products near the Samsung “without typing them in or entering them through the device’s voice assistant” and concluded “it was clear it was not recording me to use for advertising.”

That’s because, says Barrier Networks network security manager Jordan Schroeder, the costs of recording millions of average users for the purpose of advertising to them would be far too high, and the data it would receive from such an endeavor would be worthless, especially in light of the massive amount of information about you to which companies such as Google are already privy.

Sure, your Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa are always listening for their “wake words,” Schroeder said, but only if those features are enabled.

“Yes, Google, Apple, and Amazon listen to you all the time if you have the virtual assistant enabled to listen to ‘keywords.'” he said. “Samples of sounds are regularly sent to their servers for analysis to improve their algorithms. And sometimes these samples go to people first to better classify the sounds before sending them to an algorithm for analysis.”

As soon as you ask Google voice assistant to search for an item, however, all bets are off. You’ll soon see advertisements for that item everywhere you look.

But just because your phone doesn’t make a habit of invading your privacy, users still run the risk of being spied upon by “rogue apps” they may download.

“Phones have implemented controls to prevent apps from accessing microphones and cameras. They need to ask the user for permission first,” Schroeder explained. “But there’s the problem. This permission is asked for on download, and maybe for legitimate reasons, but any subsequent use of the mic could be for any reason.”

Still, he said, the general population would likely not be recorded by an app maker.

“Recording and sending all that recorded audio from millions and millions of arbitrary people is not a trivial task and the costs are high to do so,” he said. “Considering much of the information would be completely useless to anyone, it is very unlikely that someone would make or modify an app to blanketly record audio from the publics’ phones and all the other devices that everyone is slowly gathering.”

“The real risk,” Schroeder warned, “is when individuals are targeted for a specific purpose.”

According to Waugh, “Pegasus spyware – which can listen to calls, track location and ‘watch’ app activity – was used to target human rights activists, journalists and politicians in several countries.”

“If someone is a government employee or a member of the military, then the risks of being personally targeted are much higher too,” Schroeder noted. “But that is why governments and militaries have strict cybersecurity controls on how devices should be configured and what kind of use is acceptable on a personal device.”

What Americans should be far more concerned about, Schroeder said, are the mountains of data that is being collected on us all.

“By 2025, IDC forecasts that the world will generate 175 zettabytes of data (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes),” Waugh reports.

According to Schroeder, that poses a danger not just to individuals, “but to society as a whole.”


Melissa Fine


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