Our Smartphone’s Are Spying on Us: Folklore in the 21st Century
You’ve likely experienced this phenomenon. You have a face to face conversation with another person, and within a few days/hours/minutes, the internet shows you advertisements relating to what you discussed. Perhaps you mentioned needing to pick up a drink from the store, or your plan to purchase a new computer. The conversation was private. No one else was in the room except you, the other person, and, of course, your phone. Lo and behold, your feed from Facebook, Instagram, etc., spawns ads for Pepsi, or the latest Dell.
It’s creepy and it’s happened to a lot of people. Often enough that many believe our digital assistants, especially our phones, are listening in – that our private conversations are being recorded, transmitted to big tech companies who parse the data, and use it to target advertisements.
Social media is flooded with posts and videos from people showing their “proof” how Google, Facebook, etc., are spying on us, taking our privacy and turning it into an advertiser’s dream.
So, what’s the truth? Is it a big tech conspiracy? It is part of Zuckerberg’s quest to centralize the entire world’s data for his personal use?
Cyber security-specialists at Wandera, developer of cloud security systems for companies who use mobile workforces, put this conspiracy theory to the test. You can find the published study at Wandera, but we’ve included the highlights for you below.
Debunking the Myth
Wandera emulated the conspiracy theory by placing two phones, a Samsung Android and an Apple iPhone, in an “audio room,” while placing two similar phones in a “silent room.” All phones had the apps for Facebook, Chrome, SnapChat, YouTube, Amazon, and Instagram open – all with full permissions granted. The researchers then played the sound of dog and cat food advertisements in the audio room for thirty minutes, while keeping the two phones in the silent room bereft of sound. This was repeated for three days at the exact same time.
Following each day, they looked for ads related to cat or dog food and analyzed battery usage as well as data consumption. They found no relevant pet food advertisements, nor significant spikes in data or battery usage.
Regardless of their location, whether in the audio or silent rooms, the phone’s activity was similar. The recorded data when the team transferred information from the devices, but the information collected had more to do with the act of transfer than the actual data, and nowhere near the quantity gathered from virtual assistants such as Siri or Google Assistant.
Oddly enough, they discovered that Android apps consumed more data in the silent rooms compared to many iOS. The reverse occurred in the audio rooms. The iOS apps consumed more data than their Android counterparts.
The researches stated they remained unsure why this was happening but noted they would continue their investigation into this phenomenon.
Wandera’s co-founder and chief executive Eldar Tuvey was confident that their results proved that no secret transfer of significant data is happening, stating, “I would put my name to the research and say that we found no evidence at all this was happening on the platforms we tested. It might be happening in a way we don’t know about – but I would say it’s highly unlikely.”
So, is your smartphone recording you and emailing it to Zuckerberg? According to Wandera, the answer’s a resounding “no.” The company also reminded people of an important point. Google, Facebook, and the like don’t need to resort to subversive tactics. We give them troves of data every day. They have absolutely no need to sneak around.
There is a bit of a caveat. Malicious apps designed to record you, collect your data, and send it to advertisers, do exist. The good news is that defeating the caveat involves “not being an idiot.” We’ll discuss those apps and how they work in our next installment.