We humans are, at heart, a suspicious lot – and who can blame us? In a world full of conspiracy theories and fake cyber attacks, many people simply feel safer putting a sticker over the web cam on their computer rather than risk the world looking in on them.
But it doesn’t stop there, a growing number of people also believe that their phones are spying on them, recording their conversations to help companies target them with more appropriate advertising. The internet is awash with videos of people claiming to have had private conversations, with their phone in the room, only to find adverts directly relating to those conversations appear when they next browse the web. But are our phones secretly spying on us, or is this just another urban myth?
People have always loved to believe in myths, whether it’s strategy myths to beat the bank at Monte Carlo, urban myths about Hollywood stars or conspiracy theories about governments. In the current climate of so-called ‘fake news’, it’s easy to see how this paranoia is gaining ground – no one trusts anyone anymore.
No industry has more myths than the tech business, where conspiracy theories and urban myths, like the myth that our phones are being used to spy on us, abound. This has not been helped by high profile cases, such as the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which 87 million users had their data stolen and fed to the political consulting firm, who hoped to use it to affect the US elections. Even a huge $5 billion fine and a humiliating mea-culpa by Mark Zuckerberg – in front of a congressional committee – did little to restore our confidence.
Are our phones listening?
To test whether our phones really are eavesdropping on our conversations, cyber security company, Wandera performed a series of carefully controlled tests. They took two Android phones and two iPhones and put one of each into two different audio rooms. The first room played cat food and dog food ads on a loop for 30 minutes, while the second room was kept silent. In both cases, a wide range of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat and YouTube were left open with full access permissions.
When they analysed the phones afterwards, they found that neither set of devices showed any significant spike in data use or battery consumption. Furthermore, there were no relevant pet adverts found when browsing with the devices from the room where the audio had been played. Wandera Chief Executive, Eldar Turvey, concluded that “we found no evidence at all that this (audio recording and/or uploading) was happening on the platforms we tested.”
So how do targeted ads appear?
At the end of the day, companies know enough about us from our online usage that they simply don’t need to go to the trouble of hacking our phones and recording our conversations. Your location data, browsing history and social media posts all expose your interests, likes and dislikes, and by linking to your friends, who probably share your interests, algorithms can find out even more. As Dr Soteris Demetriou, cyber security expert at Imperial College London explains “(companies) now have the ability to effectively know what you could be interested in before you do.”
Do phones ever listen in?
It might all seem a bit James Bond, but your phone can actually be hacked in just the way that the paranoid internet videos suggest. Last May, What’sapp was forced to admit that a surveillance app had been planted on the phones of select customers, leaving them vulnerable to eavesdroppers. The spyware, called Pegasus, had been developed by an Israeli intelligence company and sold to governments around the world for espionage purposes. However, the company has defended its product, claiming that is has never been sold for commercial use and is solely designed for military intelligence and law enforcement.
Of course, just because it can be done doesn’t mean it is being done, as the Wandera research appears to prove. What’s more, the resources required to accurately work out what you were talking about and, more importantly, the context of those conversations would need to be so vast that it would simply not be worth the investment for companies who already know so much about you. Of course, you should still be vigilant and take steps to protect your cyber security, but thankfully whispering when you are around your mobile phone is not one of them.