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Are Your Smart-Devices Spying On You?

Have you ever had a private conversation with a friend on social media and then all of a sudden saw an ad about it?

Maybe even spoke about something specific with someone and then, again, got something related to it on your feed?

Creepy right?

Well, it gets even more complicated than that.

A company involved in mobile security carried out an experiment to find out if apps secretly listen and record conversations, or stalk our messages for marketing reasons.

Keep reading below to find out if apps or smart devices are indeed spying on us, or if it’s all just a myth.

The Experiment

The privately-owned company Wandera, specializes in mobile security solutions for businesses through its own personal app and mobile gateway products. It analyses both the data being exported and imported from devices and secures the user’s network through a series of filtering procedures.

In order to analyse whether our phones and apps are actually spying on us, the cybersecurity experts at Wandera put a Samsung Android and an Apple iPhone into an “audio room” for 30 minutes.

During those 30 minutes, they played dog and cat commercials on loop.

Subsequently, they put the two phones in a silent room for the same amount of time.

The team kept apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Chrome, SnapChat, YouTube and Amazon open, with full permissions granted for each application.

Additionally, they searched for ads related to pet food on each platform and webpage and analysed the battery usage and data consumption on the phones during the test phase.

This was repeated for the next three days.

Social Media Apps

As it turned out, there were no relevant pet food ads during the audio room phase, neither a significant change in the data or battery usage.

Experts noticed a similar activity between the phones in the two different rooms, although they recorded data, it was at very low levels.

Systems engineer at Wandera James Mack stated: “We observed that the data from our tests is much lower than the virtual assistant 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” adding that, “if it was, we’d expect data usage to be as high as the virtual assistants’ data consumption”.

However, the study did notice that for some reason the apps on the Android phone used in the experiment seemed to consume more data in the silent room, whereas the iOS apps used more in the audio room.

Analysts are not yet sure why this is and are investigating the case further.

But wait, there’s more!

It’s been years since people have been suspicious about apps and their spying abilities using the microphone.

Many users believed that Facebook specifically enabled the phones’ microphones to record conversations for ad purposes.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied this allegation publicly in October 2018 when Senator Gary Peters asked him directly.

More specifically, Zuckerberg stated “Let me be clear on this. You are talking about the conspiracy theory passed around that we listen to what is going on on your microphone and use that. We do not do that. We do allow people to take videos on their device and share those. Videos also have audio. We do, while you are taking a video, record that and use that to make the service better by making sure that you have audio. That is pretty clear.”

Zuckerberg also reported that Apple denies secretly recording its users via their iPhones or other products. The tech-giant stated in August 2018 that the “iPhone doesn’t listen to consumers, except to recognize the clear, unambiguous audio trigger ‘Hey Siri”.

Five computer science academics at Northeastern University were not convinced.

They thus decided to do a rigorous study, involving more than 17,000 popular apps on Android to examine whether any of them were secretly recording through the phone’s microphone.

The apps included those belonging to Facebook, as well as over 8,000 apps that send information to Facebook.

Although they found no evidence that apps sent audio without the user’s consent, they found something a bit more disturbing.

Apparently, some apps were recording a phone’s screen and sending that information out to third parties. (Yikes!)

For example, one of the users used the app GoPuff, and the interaction was sent to a domain affiliated with Appsee, a mobile analytics company. The recording consisted of the screen where you should enter personal information such as zip code.

It’s very concerning how many apps can actually record our moves or screenshots without us noticing!

Alexa, are you a Spy?

The line between unauthorized voice and screen recordings is still a bit blurred, as we don’t exactly know how many apps actually do this without our consent.

As we mentioned in our previous blog “The Planet of the Apps”, there are 2.8 million apps available for android and 2.2 million for iOS users in the world, and so it’s hard to track all of the data-stealing apps.

According to a Bloomberg report, however, Amazon’s Alexa does, on many occasions, record commands and conversations without the users knowing.

In January of 2019, The Verge reported that more than 100 million devices with Alexa on board have been sold. This is an extremely high number of Alexas, so imagine how many recordings must have been made!

Thousands of people around the world are reportedly employed by to help the digital assistant Alexa improve its Echo speakers.

This means that the team listens to voice recordings from homes and offices, transcribe and annotate the conversations, and then feed that information back to the software in order to make Alexa more responsive to human speech and command.

Alexa Amazon

According to Bloomberg’s report, the recordings the team listens to are sometimes upsetting or even criminal.

Two members of the “listening team” in Romania listened to a sexual assault recording. In this case, supposedly, they can share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. After requesting guidance for such cases however, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.

An Amazon spokesman said in a statement: “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order to improve the customer experience. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.”

Data for Thought

We now live in a world where smart devices are used to make our lives easier and more efficient. But are they slowly taking over our lives? Or even worse, have they already done so?

Recordings (either voice or screen) trigger popping ads that target us every day, as a result making us fall in a huge never-ending marketing loop of data, products and services.

This also happens whenever we accept “cookies” on websites, create profiles on random apps “via Facebook”, or even when we talk to someone and Alexa hears it.

Okay, fine, in the case of Alexa supposedly they record us to make her smarter. But come on, how do we know this is true?

The trickiest part of all though is that we cannot function without all of this technology anymore. People will use the internet either for work or for pleasure, and they’ll still have to “accept terms and conditions” of websites or apps.

(Let’s be honest, who reads them anyway?)

The real question now is; can we even get mad since we are the ones who “accept” such terms in the first place?