Long gone are the days where your phone is used purely just for making calls. With 2018’s technology providing some of the most life-changing technological advances to take, we adapt to a new standard of “normal” that include voice-controlled “intelligent assistants” like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana, which are now a commonplace on modern smartphones. This “intelligent assistant” allows us to easily use them to search for answers, set reminders, and fix appointments, among much more, like using apps and playing games for entertainment on-the-go by often activating a microphone feature. While these features make our daily lives a little easier, do we really know when they’re listening and what really happens to the audio they record?
“Smartphones are small tracking devices,” Michelle De Mooy, the Acting Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy & Data Project said. “We may not think of them like that because they’re very personal devices — they travel with us, they sleep next to us. But they are in fact collectors of a vast amount of information including audio information.”
For some, they simply don’t even realise that the data is there and being recorded. Many platforms such as Google are now relatively transparent, in that it allows you to review what exactly has been collected, but it doesn’t go out of its way to fully publicise that it’s there in the first place. Many other companies that record your actions don’t usually let you see what they have at all, and it’s far from clear what exactly they’re doing with the audio they’ve put in the database.
Afraid what might be done with your data? Don’t worry. Your recordings aren’t being listened to by an actual human beings, although many companies are certainly applying algorithms to look for patterns and determine potentially useful things about your online and in-person behaviours and interests to better target ads and otherwise around your own personal views, interests and potential purchases. Audio data itself could generally reveal all sorts of things, including the ambient noise could determine whether you’re in the living room or the bathtub, background voices and who you may be with, or even being able to use the microphone feature to measure noise levels that can even reveal when you’re asleep and when you’re awake.
“Even if you think you’re not saying anything very interesting or worthwhile, the data gets married and mingled with lots of other kinds of data that can create a very detailed picture of you,” explains De Mooy. “Most of these technologies aren’t in a vacuum, they’re not siloed, they really are interacting with every other type of technology that we have.”
So while your smartphone may be “watching” your online habits to best tailor your future adverts to you, a new study has now confirmed that your phone is in fact, not listening to your voice at all.
The study published monitored traffic from 17,260 Android apps using 10 phones and an automated system, keeping an eye out for any unusual activity and, in particular, any suspicious media files being delivered to third parties. Over 9,000 apps had permission to access the phone’s microphone and camera, meaning they technically did have the right to listen in when the app was in use.
During the study, at no point did the researchers see an app activate the microphone to record a conversation or send an audio file without prompt previously allowing it to do so.
While the experiment appears to debunk the “listening in” theory we’ve struggled with confirming or denying since the smartphone took off, the researchers stress it cannot be 100% ruled out entirely. The study is yet to be peer-reviewed and the phones were operated by an automated system within a lab, not a person going about their usual business. Meaning, an individuals microphone could in theory could still be triggered by movement or human contact.