April 26, 2019

In a world where our privacy is being increasingly eroded, we take what we can get. Many of us now live on our phones, for better or worse, and it’s our home away from home. I’m sure you’re used to hearing about being careful online (I hope so anyway!), but your phone listening to you isn’t an issue you can neatly sidestep. So, is this a legitimate concern, or wild conspiracy theory? The Defence Works investigates…

Some steadfastly believe we ARE being spied on constantly and an Orwellian dystopia is one targeted advert away; others believe the whole thing is completely unfounded and we simply need to limit the amount of information we put out there on the world wide web.

It must be said that so, SO many people have already attempted to get to the bottom of this issue. It’s a saturated market to say the least. Let’s look at the arguments either way…

Give me the facts…

There is a school of thought that tells us not to worry about it. Our data is only going to advertisers, and unless you happen to be the Head of GCHQ, not much to worry about, right? Well, that might be missing the point.

Google itself is the subject of a lawsuit after evidence emerged that they continued to track your location even if you explicitly disable location tracking services. This was the result of an Associated Press Investigation which was looking into the extent of Google’s powers.

When installing a new third-party app, it always asks for permissions. Access to the camera, access to your microphone, permission to post on your behalf, permission to use your email. As soon as you hit ‘yes’ it’s all up for grabs.

Investigations from VICE, The Daily Mail, The Sun, as well as exploratory pieces by the BBC and The Guardian have all arrived at a similar conclusion; we might be being listened to. Maybe. And if we are, the information is being used to target adverts at us in ever more specific ways.

Gizmodo published an article last summer about this very topic, and even references some of the pieces I just mentioned. It catalogued the efforts of some Northeastern University computer science academics when they ran a study into 17,000 apps in order to see if they collected/sent and unauthorised data (audio or otherwise). The article says that:

“They found no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so.”


This is in line with an official statement from Facebook, from way back in 2016, stating that:

“Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed”.

Consider my mind put to rest! Of course, how much weight this statement has depends entirely upon how much you trust Facebook – whose recent (continuing) blunders have been well documented.

Ok, so technically – can it be done?

The BBC asked cybersecurity experts from Pen Test Partners, a company which performs penetration tests on other companies to test their cyber mettle. They created a “prototype app” which relayed anything that the phone’s microphone picks up to a nearby monitor. Lo and behold, their words began to appear. While this doesn’t prove that advertisers are listening to us, it does prove that they can.

So far, this debate has been a series of people disproving each other back and forth. If you google this issue, you’ll find articles, backed up by professional studies no less, that state emphatically the opposite of the next article down. This means we have to go a bit deeper.

How useful…

So, I took matters into my own hands.

For several days, I kept a strict eye on my suggested adverts on all my respective social media apps and I paid attention to what I said (and what was said around me).

Now, mostly my adverts are for new movies and Amazon alerts for books (evidence of my rock-n-roll lifestyle). Over those few days, I did not see any massive change in my targeted adverts. Still books and movies. But this could be down to several factors, such as the make and model of the phone and even the network you’re with. Or maybe I spend too much time on Amazon.

One of the most even-handed examinations of this debate have come from Vox.com. It speaks about how wide the debate is and how not all of the concerns raised in this debate have clear-cut answers. Even that the alternative to audio surveillance is worse, such as predicting where you’re going to be and keeping terrifying-sounding ‘shadow profiles’ of information that you haven’t directly supplied but the system has figured out regardless e.g. your work email and likely acquaintances.

No smoke without fire?

Relatedly, concerns have been raised recently about tech giant Huawei and the widespread implementation of its new 5G network. Although not quite the same thing as listening to our conversations, it deals with the same issues of how much we trust huge companies with our data. Intelligence services are concerned that Huawei could be used to infiltrate our very infrastructure. Anyone who has ever played the videogame ‘WATCH_DOGS’ will find all this strangely familiar (but no less concerning).

The United States has requested that its partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence group (that’s the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) to exclude Huawei entirely. Huawei has “denied that its work poses any risks of espionage or sabotage”. This is in response to concerns that a hypothetical 5G cyber-attack could cripple the country. Oh joy.

All this evidence points to the conclusion that our phones most definitely can listen to everything we say; but this does not mean they necessarily do. It’s a sign that we could be more careful with our data, if these targeted ads can be so…well…targeted. Such an accurate picture can be painted about us, without us even knowing about it.  If you’re concerned about your device, we set out some top tips, here.

It’s an idea to regulate our collective digital footprint and keep an ever-watchful eye on who and what we trust both on social media and the internet in general.

On a side note; covering the microphone with Blu Tac definitely doesn’t work (don’t ask).

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