Is your smartphone ‘spying’ on you? Take the test

20 April 2021 - 13:37
By suthentira govender AND Suthentira Govender
Your smartphone is listening and the permission you have granted to apps makes this legal.
Image: Supplied Your smartphone is listening and the permission you have granted to apps makes this legal.

Your smartphone is listening and helping marketers target you.

This is according to the global virtual private network service provider NordVPN, which found in a study it conducted that there was a 5% increase in the installation of monitoring apps in 2020.

Some cellphone users indicated they suspected their smartphones were spying on them even if they have had not installed monitoring apps.

NordVPN’s digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson said “this is true”.

“Virtual assistants like Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa listen to their users all the time. They have to constantly listen so they can hear the voice command and assist. However, some of the things people say are being recorded for companies’ own benefits, like improving the service quality or for marketing purposes,” said Markuson.

“When you ask Google Assistant or Siri to find something, this information is used for online advertising. It’s no different from typing something into Google Search. If you’re looking for car dealerships in your city, related ads will start chasing you across the internet. In a way, a virtual assistant is just another search engine.”

How to test your phone:

  • Select a good topic. It should be something that couldn’t be associated with your personality, something you never talk about.
  • Isolate the topic from your phone. Do not use your phone or any other device to search for information on this topic. The best way to do so is to think of it in your head. Make sure you have never Googled this topic.
  • Select keywords. Think of a list of keywords that could trigger search engines.
  • Discuss the topic out loud next to your phone. You can do this alone or with someone else for several minutes at a time. Do so for a few days in a row. Make sure you don’t search for the topic in any other way — your phone’s only contact with it should be hearing you talk about it.

“Once you have done this, notice if new ads have started targeting you on social media or other digital channels. If they have, your phone is probably helping these ads reach you.”

Is listening to a user legal?

“When users use a virtual assistant, they agree to the terms and conditions of the service provider. Since they have given their consent, it’s legal to track the conversations with Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, and others for marketing purposes.

“It only becomes illegal if an app is spying on you without your consent. That’s why it is essential to review the permissions you’re giving specific services and learn about the ways your phone is tracking you.”

Markuson said privacy can be protected by reviewing app permissions.

“Once access is granted, the app can do whatever it wants with that data. Build a routine to review your phone’s app permissions and think twice before agreeing to an app’s demands.”