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Spying Smartphones: a Myth or Reality?

Are our smartphones, their system software, or user apps a threat to our privacy?

There exist two scenarios in which smartphone software will record user voice communications for use by third parties. The first one is activated when you download some app that gains access to the microphone and can stay on in background mode. Where web access is enabled, this type of software is capable of tapping voice communications and sending the data to a destination programmed by developer. Even an insouciant user would be alarmed if a game app that has no business using your phone mike suddenly asked your permission to use it. The user would do well to deny permission or even scrap the app altogether.


Things get more precarious when a software product that does need the mike to perform requests mike access. The request sounds reasonable and alerts no one. Well, guess what! This is exactly the loophole many developers may wish to exploit to glean user data unbeknownst to user, in a bid to monetize it through contextual advertising later on.


The only difference about the other smartphone tapping scenario is that the surreptitious recording and siphoning off of user voice data is not done by an app but by the smartphone’s system software (the Android or iOS operating systems). In both cases, however, user data is collected officially since the user has already accepted the terms of the user agreement.


There are signs to watch out for if you want to know whether your phone collects your voice data in background mode for the developer: for instance, your battery runs out of charge too soon, or your apps take up too much traffic. Here is a simple experiment you can do to make certain. Say some words into your smartphone that you never say in real life: talk about Antarctica or South American tours, for instance. If, some time later, you start getting ads associated with these contexts every time you run the search engine, your smartphone has been recording your voice and sending the data back to the software developer’s server.


To guard your privacy, never give apps any permissions beyond those they have to have to remain functional. The expert admitted, however, that technology is so deeply embedded in our life that this kind of data collection is difficult to avoid. You agree to the use of your personal data when you push “accept” on your user agreement. But you won’t be able to use the software unless you accept. And smartphones aren’t even the only gadgets that process your voice data in background mode: Smart TVs, smart speakers, and any other gadgets with a mike also do this.

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