Much like our real-world identity, our digital identity is multifaceted and distinct. Since we have become internet-savvy, the data that makes up our digital identity is all over the place. But, if there is one device that holds the key to our data and identity today, it’s our mobile phone. So, it is no surprise that individuals and organisations are trying to find ways to tap into our devices and gather the information they need.
One of the most disturbing theories doing the rounds is how apps and websites pick up our conversations. People see ads about products they never searched for but merely mentioned to a friend. Yes, it can be a coincidence, but you are not entirely wrong to think that your phone is listening to everything you say.
How are phones listening to us?
Apps and websites track a lot about us by design. They need our data to function better. In fact, we ourselves give them access to our call logs, camera, GPS location and whatnot. Some of these apps request permission to use the phone’s microphone, post which they can legally snoop over our conversations, even when they are not in use. No one stops to read the fine print anyway!
The introduction of voice assistants further accelerated the trend to capture dialogues. When Apple launched Siri in 2011, it generated a lot of buzz and excitement. How cool was it to just talk to your phone and get the work done? Very. Could anything be wrong? Well, the microphone had to be in constant use to capture these commands. After Siri came Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and many others who paved the path for much serious investigation into the use of voice data.
Where does the data go?
It is no secret that voice-based commands and assistants are growing in popularity and power. So undoubtedly, your phone is listening to you. But how do they understand that it’s your voice and not someone else’s? How are they able to understand different dialects? Technology, of course, plays a significant role but so do the humans behind the technology.
Case 1: Alexa
Taking the case of Alexa, a report by Bloomberg suggests that Amazon deploys thousands of workers worldwide to listen to conversations captured by the device to improve its technology. Every time you say “Alexa”, it wakes up and gathers all the information it needs. But, there is also a fair chance that a false positive sets off the same process. This is when all the good, bad, ugly, and embarrassing might reach people on the other side.
While Amazon has not publicly discussed the role of humans in technology, Bloomberg suggests that recordings are associated with account numbers, device serial numbers and the owner’s first name, putting privacy at grave risk.
Case 2: Facebook
Bloomberg uncovered a similar threat through its investigation on Facebook in 2019. The social media giant hired third-party contractors to transcribe audio recordings that certain users exchanged on its Messenger app. On contacting some of these workers, they revealed that while they did not know where the audio came from, there were instances where they heard private conversations.
Facebook said that complete anonymity was maintained, and it was a regular protocol to improve the products and technology. However, after Bloomberg’s exposé, its spokesperson assured that the practice was halted but did not reveal if it would be restarted. He said that they were following other companies such as Google and Apple in restricting the use of audio and voice recordings.
It is important to note that this revelation came after Mark Zuckerberg testified to a Senate committee in 2018 that Facebook was not eavesdropping on conversations.
Why should you be concerned?
Our mobile phones and devices make our lives easier, but there is a persistent risk that recorded interactions will reach unwanted third parties. For example, a hacker or a rogue employee could potentially use this information to infiltrate your personal information or even your home. With all the data associated with your voice sample, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to reach you.
Furthermore, technology is smart enough to figure out the link between different data points. If you casually mentioned to Alexa about Nike shoes on Tuesday and used Google maps to reach the store on Saturday, it will trigger a response. Since data is being sent to third-party apps, you might see related ads across the web and price drops on shoes you liked. And, with all the data-tracking software linked with Facebook, you’ll end up seeing a few in your Facebook feed too. Even searches not made by you but coming from the same IP address can activate such results.
The power to correlate and thus predict your behaviour is as creepy as it is fascinating. So all the times that you thought ads were a mere coincidence, well, technology has worked hard to be this sophisticated. You can only imagine the consequences of leaking this data to someone with malicious intent.
What can you do about this?
It is hard to predict when your phone is listening to you and storing unwanted voice samples. But, you can focus on a few preventive measures. Firstly, review all app permissions on your phone. If an app is using your microphone without your knowledge, revoke the access immediately. Sometimes, permissions are granted by default on the phone so make sure you look at those.
Secondly, don’t trust any “unofficial” sites for downloading apps on your phone. They might compromise your privacy and snoop over conversations without your knowledge. Instead, use only trusted sources such as the Play Store and App Store. Thirdly, if you are using voice-to-text for any messaging apps, see if you can disable it. Lastly, pull the plug on voice assistants themselves if you can work without them. That’s how you can reduce their chances of collecting data that they shouldn’t.
Big data is big business, and these apps that track and analyse your patterns and habits are a reflection of the industry’s growing interest in gathering as much data as they can. There is a real chance that what you say to your friends, family, or significant other will be used to sell you things. Whenever you talk about topics considered too sensitive, your phone is listening. They might be collected, analysed and put into databases by total strangers.