Almost everyone has got a story about their phone “listening” to them. These stories usually follow the framework of someone talking to their friends about something (a brand, an event or a holiday) and shortly afterwards their social media seems to advertise eerily similar products. In some cases, people have perhaps forgotten that alongside their conversation, they also searched the topic thus explaining the advertising similarities. However, that is not always the case.
They are essentially ready-made monitoring devices
Our phones already store an inordinate amount of our data. They have access to our personal details, dating lives and other sensitive information. They are essentially ready-made monitoring devices.
Most of us unthinkingly click “Allow” when asked if an app can access the microphone, the camera, our contacts etc. But when we tick that access box what are we actually allowing? Though there have been recent efforts to ensure that the default option in downloads and subscriptions is one that doesn’t allow third party apps intimate access to those details, the reality is still unclear.
Even if we don’t tick the box ourselves, our phones often arrive with a number of enabled settings such as the “microphone always on” feature that enables things like Siri and Google to hear us saying “Hey Siri” or “Hey Google”. Last year this led to something a scandal as a Whistle-blower from Apple claimed that there were not sufficient measures in place to protect the personal recordings that Siri takes.
How much of our data do third party companies have, and what will they do with it?
The main cause for concern is of course how much of our data do third party companies have, and what will they do with it? The most obvious use of data is micro marketing and hyper targeted advertisements. This is not something particularly new as micro targeted advertisements based on search and interest history are already in place.
This brings up an interesting point, computers and phones already have so much of our data, so do we need to worry about our phones potentially listening to us? From Instagram to Period Tracking apps, our phones know about almost every aspect of our lives. Though, it is important to note that a number of apps encrypt that data in order to prevent third parties accessing and using it.
But this encryption is not always successful – in fact, last year Whatsapp’s encryption service was hacked and thousands of people’s data was exposed. So, companies are perhaps more likely to invest in improving and evolving the current mechanisms in place that allow advertisers to utilise the data we voluntarily input.
Cambridge Analytica and their somewhat nefarious tactics to swing elections using targeted adverts
Of course, in recent years there have been a number of instances of personal data being violated and used not just for harmless advertising but for the more sinister goal of altering political landscapes. An example of this is Cambridge Analytica and their somewhat nefarious tactics to swing elections using targeted adverts on people who are on the fence. The worry here being that the control and access to our data is in the hands of companies who, on the whole, are working for their own financial gain.
I suppose the fear of being listened to by our laptops and phones is more the sense of the unknown. When we download and use apps, for the most part we are aware of the fact that our data is going to be used. Phones only see what we allow them to see- the things we actively show them.
Whether or not we need to be worried about this breach of privacy is difficult to answer. And with us voluntarily giving over so much of our data, do we need to worry about giving them anymore? I suppose it is a matter of personal preference on privacy.
There are measures that can be taken to at least limit your phone’s recording capabilities
Though there are measures that can be taken to at least limit your phone’s recording capabilities, by turning off microphone access to individual apps, there may little point in doing so. It is impossible to know how to deal with the abundance of data companies have about us. With more governmental interest in the use and storage of data, there is a chance that measures will be put in place in the coming years to limit tech companies use of our data.
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