Who’s Listening?

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Who’s Listening?

Find out if and why your phone might always be recording you.

Privacy has always been a core American value. When appliance companies like Apple and Google produce phones and helpers that utilize listening as a function, Americans raise eyebrows. When Amazon’s Alexa responds when she’s not wanted, or Apple phones leak private messages and photos, the nation wonders: are these glitches in the system, or glimpses behind the curtain?

In April of 2018, Facebook endured two days’ worth of grueling congressional hearings, including a five hour session with CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Most of the concern in the chamber stemmed from accusations of enabling political warfare.

During the 2016 election, it came out that more than 50 million users’ information was purchased by the Trump campaign via Cambridge Analytica, a British political data firm. It’s said that the information was used to ascertain which propaganda would work best to sway favor from the voting population, and that a series of political ads and biased journalism was pushed to the forefront of bought users’ feeds accordingly. Consequently, these 50 million users had the opportunity to share the information to a median of two hundred friends, friends who could then share it themselves. Because of this function, there’s no telling how many people the affected information might have passed on to. This possibility is especially alarming when paired with the knowledge that 45% of Americans report receiving news primarily through Facebook.

To put things in perspective: Facebook attracts a whopping 2 billion monthly users. In terms of influence, this social media titan has a quarter of the world in the palm of its hands. Additionally, this heavy global traffic tipped revenue for the company over $40 billion in 2017, 98% of which came from advertisement. In fact, Facebook is eerily good at advertising to its users.

According to corporate, Facebook stores information about locations you check into, businesses you review, friends you add, groups you participate in, sites you visit through the app, and all of your professed likes and interests so that advertisers can connect you with products you’ll genuinely enjoy rather than products you’ll ignore. Sometimes, however, interests expressed outside of Facebook, whether over the phone or in person, can be promoted in users’ personalized feeds.

Though Facebook expressly denies tapping into users’ cameras and microphones with malicious intent, they fail to specifically address what their app might hear when “consenting” users leave it running in the background of their phones. Many believe that companies like Facebook slip clauses between the lines of their user agreement sections that allow loopholes for breach of privacy.

“Consumers ought to have clearer information, not opaque policies and complex click-through consent pages,” stated Senator Chuck Grassley, addressing Zuckerberg during his congressional hearing, “The tech industry has an obligation to respond to widespread and growing concerns over data privacy and security and to restore the public’s trust.”

Facebook hasn’t been the only company under fire. More recently, Apple users discovered an odd glitch where audio from persons receiving calls was being transferred before the calls were accepted. This glitch was especially shocking for Facetime users, who could often see and listen to people they were group-calling as the receivers were being dialed.

Apple publicly apologized, temporarily disabling the group call feature while they worked to resolve the eavesdropping glitch. However, the slip-up raised an arsenal of questions. How was the connection achieved without users’ consent in the first place? If users’ Macbook and iPhone cameras were not “active” in the seconds before the call was accepted, how were the recordings produced? Are our phones always watching, listening?

Before the eavesdropping scandal ever occurred, it’s noteworthy that a similar concern was raised with Apple’s helper, Siri. When activating new phones, users are presented with the option to activate the “hey, Siri” function, which allows them to wake up a digital helper with nothing more than an audio cue. What some users might not be aware of, though, is that consenting to Siri’s voice activated service allows all commands to be recorded and sent to Apple for review. The review process is what allows Siri to search for the most appropriate response to the command she’s been given; however, the command recordings survive long after the answer is provided.

According to Apple, when a user enable Siri’s wake-up feature their phone listens idly until it receives its cue. Recordings from the point after Siri wakes up to the end of the inquiry are then transferred to Apple under an anonymous tag, meaning if users request to see the data Apple has associated with them, their Siri recordings will not be included.

This practice isn’t unique to Apple, either. Amazon Alexa, Google Helper, and Microsoft Cortana all record and store in a similar fashion. However, with the context of the eavesdropping glitch, there’s the unsettling possibility that these products might be actively recording everything without our knowledge.

What does it mean when our phones are always listening? Immediately, there’s concern for the privacy of our home lives, the secrets we might share in the presence of our phones. However, actively listening appliances could pose a more immediate physical danger.

Recent developments in ultrasonic technology- the basis for machines which use tones imperceivable to the human ear to communicate with our phones- make it possible for third party apps with access to our microphones to track our daily routine. For example, tones from an American Eagle advertisement you pass in the mall could alert your phone without your knowing, allowing apps like Facebook with cookies on your phone to give you the final push to make a purchase. If this seems harmless, consider that Facebook has a history of unwittingly hosting links that sex traffickers use to make backdoors in the devices of potential victims. Whether or not companies like Apple are innocent of intruding, precautions should be taken to ensure the listening features of programs like Siri aren’t exploited by predators.

In this new age of technology, when it seems people have such little control over which parts of their lives are personal and public, it’s imperative that companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google are transparent and trustworthy. The people who make use of their services should not feel as though they’re sacrificing their human right to privacy in order to stay connected; it’s cruel to put a price tag on humanity’s inherent loneliness. In the future, Americans shouldn’t have to speculate whether their devices are withholding their right to privacy, or wonder whether their identities are being manipulated- they should have every assurance that their safety is not being compromised.

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