Are Seri or Alexa listening in on your bedroom conversations?
For years, smartphone users have complained of a creepy feeling that the gadget is recording their every word, even when it is in their pocket. Many share a similar story that soon after chatting about unusual niche products or holiday destinations they received Facebook advertising postings on the same themes.
Just as our online activities, including emails, information searches and website visits are constantly being monitored and stored, uninvited eavesdropping voice assistants can do the same.
Whenever a user initiates a voice assistant request with a "wake up" word or phrase, such as "Alexa," "Okay Google," or "Hey Siri," the device instantly begins recording audio clips which are processed for responses by the operating company’s server.
This sound activation feature means that the virtual assistants are constantly capable of listening and recording, even when the device is not engaged in active conversation with the user. That capability potentially enables host companies or outside hackers to listen in to everything that is going on in our surroundings — even when we imagine them to be sleeping.
Because smartphones have become essential companions, their sensors stay close to most of us throughout the day and night — in our car cup holders, on our desks and dinner tables — and yes — also on our nightstands.
These omnipresent devices which are with us 24/7 can be switched on by uninvited intruders to record private information about our special interests, habits and preferences for targeting of advertising promotions and other purposes.
As quoted in Science News, Maryam Mehmezhad, a computer scientist at England's Newcastle University, warns: "Those sensors are finding their ways into every corner of our lives. That’s a good thing when phones are using their observational dexterity to do our bidding. But the plethora of highly personal information that smartphones are privy to also makes them powerful potential spies."
Sam Nichols, a blogger with Vice.com, reported a surprising experience following a discussion with a friend regarding mutual interests in visiting Japan while in a bar with their iPhones in pockets. The next day, both received pop-up ads on Facebook about cheap return trips from Tokyo. That event prompted him to try an experiment to see if his suspected phone source might respond to other unknown activation phrase triggers.
So twice a day, for five days, Sam voiced certain trial trigger phrases, such as, "I’m thinking about going back to uni and I need some cheap shirts for work."
Suddenly, virtually overnight, he began receiving Facebook posts about mid-semester courses at various universities, and how certain brands were offering cheap clothing. Another private conversation with a friend about having run out of data capacity led to an ad about cheap 20 GB data plans.
Facebook, WhatsApp, and other companies categorically deny that they use smartphones to gather information for purposes of targeted advertising. They attribute the eerie feelings that some may have about smartphones listening to them as merely an example of heightened perception a — phenomenon whereby people are more likely to notice things they’ve recently talked about.
Smartphone cameras can be activated by hackers to spy on their owners. This can be achieved either by secretly installing software on the phones via physical access, or by using a more common method through remote security breaches.
A great feature about smartphones is that their functionality can be expanded and customized according to personal interests by installing apps. The scary news here is that many apps are being provided by disreputable sources whose intent is to help themselves to a lot more of that personal information than we realize.
We might ask ourselves, for example, why a new game we are ordering requires us (in small print) to grant them access to our contacts, our GPS, and our camera.
Google Play discovered and booted 20 apps from Android phones and its app store which could — without the user’s knowledge — record with the microphone, monitor a phone’s location, take photos, and then extract the data. While stolen photos and sound bites pose obvious privacy invasions, even seemingly innocuous sensor data can potentially broadcast sensitive information, such as about what users are typing.
A "multilateration" feature on our smartphones also enables them to locate themselves via cell towers or an integrated GPS chip. This marvel, which provides access to map navigation, also enables retailers and others to profile establishments the phone owner visits most frequently, and even how much time they spend there.
So now that our smartphones can know where we are and what we are doing pretty much all the time — does it really matter? Maybe each of us must decide whether all this attention causes us to feel more like global celebrities, or alternatively, as ever-larger targets of Big Data mining profilers, nefarious hacking profiteers, and other privacy-invading peeking Toms.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015) and "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax" (2012). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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