Everyone has a story. Like my daughter, Kelsey, who said a while back she was talking to her boyfriend on her cellphone, asking him to pick up some NyQuil on his way home. Hours later, there were ads on her Facebook page for . . . NyQuil.
Coincidence? Nuh uh. Phones have microphones and they can be turned on by different applications at nearly any time. Worse, you’ve agreed to let them do it (in those interminable terms of service agreements no one ever reads).
The BBC last year ran a great story — “Is your phone listening in? Your stories” — compiling a slew of anecdotes, like this one: “My fiancee and I both had wedding ads the day after we got engaged, before we had told anyone.”
Now, Sam Nichols at Vice has written a great piece subtitled “Here’s how I got to bottom of the ads-coinciding-with-conversations mystery.” In it, Nichols breaks it down simply, with insights from Dr. Peter Hannay, the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk and former lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University.
For your smartphone to actually pay attention and record your conversation, there needs to be a trigger, such as when you say “hey Siri” or “okay Google.” In the absence of these triggers, any data you provide is only processed within your own phone. This might not seem a cause for alarm, but any third party applications you have on your phone—like Facebook for example—still have access to this “non-triggered” data. And whether or not they use this data is really up to them.
“From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to [other apps like Facebook’s] servers but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are,” explains Peter. “Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”
Hannay says social media sites and other apps might have thousands of triggers to determine when your cellphone becomes a microphone, sending your voice into massive data banks. So Nichols tried an experiment: “Twice a day for five days, I tried saying a bunch of phrases that could theoretically be used as triggers. Phrases like I’m thinking about going back to uni and I need some cheap shirts for work. Then I carefully monitored the sponsored posts on Facebook for any changes.”
The changes came literally overnight. Suddenly I was being told mid-semester courses at various universities, and how certain brands were offering cheap clothing. A private conversation with a friend about how I’d run out of data led to an ad about cheap 20 GB data plans. And although they were all good deals, the whole thing was eye-opening and utterly terrifying.
So yes, you’re not paranoid: Big brother really IS listening.