Is Your Smartphone Eavesdropping on You?
Yes it is. If you want a guarantee that no smart device is monitoring what you do, throw away all of your smart devices. Replace your smartphone with a flip phone. Get rid of your smart TV. And never say or write anything on an electronic device that you wouldn’t be comfortable appearing on the front page of, say, The Wall Street Journal.
Most people aren’t willing to go that far. I’m certainly not. I’m about 30 years older than the generation that’s attached to their smartphones 24/7 with dozens of interactive apps running simultaneously, but I have a smartphone and a smart TV.
I use my smartphone for phone calls, text messages, and to read the news. I don’t have social media apps running on it. As for my smart TV, Netflix and HBO probably think I’m a crotchety old fart who spends most of his viewing time watching war movies and documentaries. I suppose that’s not too far from the truth.
Many of my younger clients are concerned that their smartphones are spying on them. They are right to be concerned.
I’ve received a steady stream of articles that claim smartphones not only monitor what you do on them but actually listen to your conversations and then feed that information to social media platforms. This YouTube video, for instance, demonstrates that Facebook or Messenger may be listening to conversations on and in the vicinity of a user’s smartphone (in this case on cat food) and then serving up cat food ads on that device.
What’s more, a BBC Technology post from last year provided several illustrations of apparent Facebook ads based on monitored conversations. One couple started receiving wedding ads on Facebook the day after they got engaged. Subsequently, they drank a type of liquor they’d never consumed before and started getting Facebook ads for that specific brand.
Facebook vehemently denies that it monitors smartphone conversations. In a post in its newsroom, Facebook claims it “does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in [your] News Feed.”
So what’s actually going on?
Facebook may not be the problem, at least not directly. But if you’re a typical smartphone user, you probably have games loaded on your device from a company called Alphonso. Or you have apps that use Alphonso’s software. According to a report in The New York Times:
“Using a smartphone’s microphone, Alphonso’s software can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see. The information can then be used to target ads more precisely and to try to analyze things like which ads prompted a person to go to a car dealership … The software can also detect sounds even when a phone is in a pocket if the apps are running in the background.”
Alphonso publishes more than 1,000 games, including popular titles such as “Honey Quest,” featuring an animated bear. And Alphonso’s audio monitoring technology is embedded in at least 250 of the apps available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
It’s unclear how conversations made in the vicinity of your smartphone eventually show up as Facebook ads. Alphonso is supposedly designed to monitor audio only from television shows and similar sources. But Facebook is getting the data from somewhere.
You might be tempted to conclude that the furor over smartphone monitoring is much ado about nothing. After all, what harm can it do if Facebook, either directly or indirectly, is monitoring your conversations? The company is only serving you ads its algorithms conclude are relevant to your needs. Indeed, you might even believe that the ads serve a useful purpose by alerting you to potential solutions to subjects you’ve talked about or heard about on television. And it’s unlikely you’ll be branded as a possible terrorist based on your conversations about cat food, wedding plans, or drinking a new brand of liquor.
On the other hand, you might prefer to remain free of such monitoring. If you’re determined to carry your social media apps with you on your smartphone, there’s a simple solution to eliminate audio monitoring. Turn off your microphone.
On iPhones, go to Settings —> Privacy —> Microphone and then swipe to turn off all apps’ access to your microphone. On Android phones, go to Settings —> Apps & Notifications —> App Info —> App Permission to revoke app access to your phone’s microphone.
When you’re finished, test your smartphone to ensure the settings actually turned off the microphone and you are no longer being monitored. Have a conversation with someone about a topic you’ve never mentioned before – a vacation to Finland, for instance.
Then check your Facebook feed. If you don’t get served ads about vacation deals to Finland, it worked. If you do, though, you might want to ditch your smartphone for a flip-phone – or at least delete social media apps from it.
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