You either know somebody or it has happened to you – you have a conversation around your smartphone, check your social media or news feed, and boom, the topics of your conversation are being advertised on your smartphone. Most people’s reaction is usually some combination of “WTF?!?” and “Is my phone really listening in on me?” This isn’t new news, but mobile espionage (the modern catch phrase for smartphones listening, watching and tracking your every movement without you knowing) is certainly getting discussed a lot more, and on many levels.
Within the last few months, the average smartphone user has started to catch up with the security world in questioning if their phone is listening in on them. We saw social experiments where:
- People discussed off-topics like “Cat Food” and then received “Cat Food” advertisements on Facebook.
- Gimlet Media’s, “Reply All” segment received hundreds of calls about Facebook listening in and sharing their experiences.
- The Verge showed how tape can help block your cameras but provides minimal protection to microphones and conversations.
- Heck, even Mark Zuckerberg revealed his attempts to protect this laptop with tape over the camera and microphone jacks.
Bottom-line, people are growing weary and starting to question how much their electronic devices (phones and computers) know about them, how the information is gathered and where that information is being shared. Rightfully so, this is an important topic to understand as much of our future lives will involve us talking to electronic devices that will listen, store, process and share information to provide a better “experience” for users.
Before we delve into the reasoning of electronic devices listening in, let’s first review why someone, either an entity like Facebook or an individual would want to listen in on a user.
Every person produces data and all data is valuable.
First, listening in on users provides a massive amount of valuable data that provides insight into people’s lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re discussing cat food or a corporate merger, all data, whether it’s written or spoken, is valuable. And if you don’t believe me, try this simple test.
Ask the average consumer “How much money do you pay for the services provided by Google or Facebook?”
The typical consumer response: “Zero. I pay nothing for either Google or Facebook.”
So, if the average consumer pays nothing for Google or Facebook, how have they achieved a combined market cap of over a trillion dollars? How are they making money?
Answer, they collect every ounce of data you produce using their products and services, they analyze it and sell it to whomever is willing to pay for it. NOTE: Google and Facebook aren’t selling server farms of data to buyers, they are selling your gathered profile information to advertisers, who are willing to pay to reach very specific people online. The more data they collect on you the richer the profile and the more it is worth to advertisers. And this is just a taste but your online searches, your social media posts, your location and movements, your free email services, etc., all are for sale. Some data brokers (i.e. Google, Facebook, Amazon) have as many as 3,000 labels to categorize you and pinpoint your exact thoughts, feelings and emotions so they can best entice certain reactions from you. Reaction can be anything from an online advertisement to buy something on Amazon to swaying your political vote in this last election.
OK, now that you understand that your digital footprint creates money for the data brokers of the world, let’s explore the next wave of human to computer communication.
Voice communication is the next digital frontier.
From the prominence of punch cards until the time Alexa was introduced, the standard form of human to computer interaction was typing. Meaning if you wanted to search for something or reply to a message, you would physically type on your computer or phone. That’s quickly changing from typing to talking for many reasons.
First, it’s much easier for you to speak to something versus manually type it. The average person types around 60-70 words per minute while the average person speaks 140-150 words per minute. Plus, those words provide all sorts of additional data the brokers will pick apart. For example, was your conversation about work or personal? What time of day? Where were you located? What was the tone and inflection of your voice? Point being, you produce more valuable data by talking versus typing, and as we know from above, ALL data is valuable.
Second, the online search market, and the associated revenue, is up for grabs. Here’s why. Since the late 90’s when Google entered the online search market until now, they’ve had the dominate share for online searches for data collection and processing. They produce incredible products like Google Search, Gmail, Google Maps and Android that allow them to tap into billions of people and make billions of dollars. But Google’s market hold is being tested by the other tech giants of the world.
Since using your voice doesn’t require you to open a specific app or type in a web address, the path to capturing your data lies with whomever creates the best digital assistant/chat bot. This is why you see companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and others pour hundreds of millions into digital assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana. Whatever company provides the best digital assistant to capture your voice data, will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to unseat Google and capture billions in data collection revenue.
So, quick summary, it’s easier to talk than type, voice data is worth billions, potentially trillions, and data brokers are finding new ways to capture this new data set for their profit.
I’ve got nothing to hide. Let them listen in.
It’s concerning to me when I talk to people and hear, “I’ve got nothing to hide”, with the massive amount of data collection that is happening in the world today. And while it’s likely true for most people, almost everyone has something they’d like to protect. Don’t believe me? Try another social experiment and how it would affect you, enterprise business and government. If you’ve got nothing to protect, then the following should be considered, “fair game” to data brokers to collect, analyze and sell:
Your financial information, medical records, the churches you attend, how fast you drive, your political opinions, etc.
Revenue, employee compensation, new product developments, patent and trademark filings, customer data, contract agreements, etc.
Tax reform legislation, environmental policies, immigration, healthcare, trade, government monitoring activities (including homeland security), troop stationing and movements, ongoing relationship talks with North Korea, Iran, China and Russia, etc.
As you will likely agree from even this incomplete list of just a few topics, these types of information deserve protection. The word “hiding” is associated with doing something wrong. While “protecting” means distributing the information with those you trust. And the information we need to protect shouldn’t be swept up through smartphone microphones just because you have Facebook, Siri or OK Google on your phone.
How can I protect myself?
First, the most important step you can take is to educate yourself on data collection.
Know that your voice data is highly sought after. After all, voice is the future of communication and the likelihood of microphones listening to you will increase each day. How people collect data and how it’s being used will continue to evolve over time. And as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle” and that’s absolutely true here.
Second, understand the access you allow on your smartphone and computer.
We’re entering uncharted territory where talking to our electronic devices will be incredibly valuable, convenient and productive for almost everyone. You’ll need to find a good balance of when and where to use your digital assistant/chat bot and when to use products like SafeCase for iPhone block microphones, cameras and the location monitoring services on your smartphone from all types of surveillance. Simple things in your phone settings like, “only allow access” to your mics, cameras and location when you use an app is a great start. There is no silver bullet but being aware of what is possible will keep you ahead of the smartphone anti-surveillance game.
Third, think before you speak.
Before you start verbally discussing something, ask yourself “If someone was listening in on me, could what I discuss do damage to me, my family/friends, corporation or country? Could it be misconstrued or misinterpreted?” If yes, move to a place where there are no computers or smartphones to ensure your conversation stays protected. And if going to a “sensor-free area” is not possible, you can always buy protection like our Privacy Guard.
So, wait, is Facebook listening in on me?
What Facebook publically states is “no”, they do not use microphones to gather what you say. But let’s unpack that response before we blindly accept the answer.
First, your voice and other audio beacons could potentially be collected by another app on your smartphone that's quietly recording you and sharing that information with Facebook and other data brokers.
Second, as we can see from the above, Facebook and others are highly incentivized to gather as much data as possible, regardless of typing or talking. A perfect example of sharing personal information to gain additional benefit is Google Maps. To use Google Maps, you have to reveal your location. In return, you don’t have to buy paper maps to navigate. But now Google knows when, where and how you’re going from Point A to Point B to sell that information to advertisers.
Lastly, the intent of this discussion isn’t to negate the positive benefits of Facebook’s ability to connect people in a virtual world or have you delete Facebook from your phone. The trend line of AI, machine learning and digital assistants all point to collecting and processing more data about you – that includes Data at Rest, Data in Motion and Data in Vicinity. The intent is to help you connect the dots about our digital future and gain insight on how and why you should protect yourself.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this: Now that you know electronic devices can listen in on you, there’s a lack of transparency on how your data is collected and distributed, and that all data is valuable. Do you still think you have nothing to protect?
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in December 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.