Is my phone actually listening in on me?

DaveC426913

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I got into a discussion with some friends the other day about this, after someone's Google type-ahead "How do I..." mysteriously mirrored something he had been trying to do (and thus talking about).

I wanted to know if it's really happening, as opposed to merely plausibly happening. All my friends offered all sorts of rationales about "Of course it's happening. Why wouldn't it?" But merely plausible doesn't convince me that it's occurring right now en mass.

I should say that my friends believed this was in the OS (Android in this case), not Facebook or some other app.

So we ran an experiment. We left his phone on the table and started talking about a random subject - in this case, Nike. We just inserted "I really could use a pair of Nikes" and other such positive comments into our normal conversation.

After about ten minutes, he searched for "Where can I buy ..."

He got null results.

In fact, nothing he did would pull up Nike, not even "Where can I guy a pair of ...?"

So, naturally I was vindicated - and smug. **

But I really would like to know - how real is this scenario? Are there really phones out there who do this on a default setting?

I think some people have reported anecdotal experiences (very unreliable). Has anyone done controlled experiments and found results?
 
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Yes, I've heard of this happening. If an app has access to the mic and is running then it could listen in. Apple listens for Hey Siri and other listen for whatever before they begin processing your request but an app could just listen too.
 

DaveC426913

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** Of course, we then went farther down the rabbit hole. We posited that - since they ARE listening to EVERY word we say - they will have picked up the fact that we're about to test that the phone is listening to us - so of course that would trigger a behavior to NOT serve up predicted content right now - thereby not tipping their hand. o0)
 

DaveC426913

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Yes, I've heard of this happening. If an app has access to the mic and is running then it could listen in. Apple listens for Hey Siri and other listen for whatever before they begin processing your request but an app could just listen too.
I added a note, above, that I'm not talking about Siri or its ilk - which are designed to listen in.

My friends all thought this was part of the OS.
 

anorlunda

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To have a public discussion on this topic, you must distinguish between people who are individually targeted, and a mass data gathering looking at all or most or just many phones at one time.

If I was Edward Snowden, you bet I would believe that I was targeted, and that all nearby devices try to spy on me.

But since I'm a nobody, I presume that I am not individually targeted. In that case, my presumption would be that if all phones were actively bugged, then security researchers would have discovered that and there would be a big stink; especially since employees of CIA and NSA also own commercial phones.

Starting in the 1980s, I used to advise people, "Never do or say anything illegal, immoral, or embarrassing, in a room that contains any kind of computer." That was after a news story that said Sun workstations had accidentally been shipped with the built-in mike hot. Nobody listened to me then, nor do they now.
 

DaveC426913

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To have a public discussion on this topic, you must distinguish between people who are individually targeted, and a mass data gathering looking at all or most or just many phones at one time.
Sorry, I did not think it was ambiguous. I am not talking about bugging an individual's phone. I did specify "en mass".

... my presumption would be that if all phones were actively bugged, then security researchers would have discovered that and there would be a big stink; especially since employees of CIA and NSA also own commercial phones.

Starting in the 1980s, I used to advise people, ...
Well, then you're old enough to remember the days when we found it hard to believe that websites were actually monitoring our browsing habits. :wink: There was a short period where that was hard to believe. And we thought - well if it were true, then security researchers would have discovered that and there would be a big stink.



It was implausible - until it wasn't.
 
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I find it unlikely, since Google supposedly provides you all the data that you give them (even voice searches). Also, in Europe that would go against GDPR, unless Google explicitly stated it was processing that type of data.
 
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Any app that you give mic access permissions to can be listening not just the os provider.

Don’t think just because it’s unlikely or implausible that it’s not going to happen. If it’s possible hardwarewise then someone is doing it for reasons that we don’t know.

Do you remember the iconic photo of Mark Zuckerberg at work at Facebook where the webcam of his computer was taped over? Why would they do that if they weren’t fearful of someone hacking it?
 

CWatters

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It didn't listen to me when I tested it just now. I spoke out loud "sausages" then googled "I like to eat sa" and it still didn't suggest sausages.

But then I realised my phone was in the room earlier when I was eating fish and chips so it knew I was lying :-)
 

DaveC426913

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Any app that you give mic access permissions to can be listening not just the os provider.
Don’t think just because it’s unlikely or implausible that it’s not going to happen. If it’s possible hardwarewise then someone is doing it for reasons that we don’t know.
I've heard lots of "plausibles" about this subject.
What I don't want is to be taken in by urban myths.

I did a test. It produced a false result. It may be only one data point, but it still trumps "plausible".

Do you remember the iconic photo of Mark Zuckerberg at work at Facebook where the webcam of his computer was taped over? Why would they do that if they weren’t fearful of someone hacking it?
Appeal to authority. Despite memes, Zuck is still humanly paranoid*.
Also, false equivalence.
Also, circumstantial. I grant it's plausible; I just doubt it's actually here and now true.

*There's no harm in taping over your camera. I do. But if my phone is actively listening and taking actions, that is cause for me to put my phone in a shredder.
 

DaveC426913

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Google finds..How to listen to recordings Google has made (scroll down)..
https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/stop-google-android-listening/
Yes. I checked this out earlier today. I was able to find what Google has recorded.

It has recorded about 5 things from me in the last few months. All of which I am aware of - because I had explicitly activated the voice-recognition feature, to see if I could direct Google hands-free.

And I did not have to turn the feature off. Once I left the Google search home page, it did not record anything else.

In other words, my meager experiments it is about as non-intrusive and non-covert as it is possible to be.
 

fluidistic

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While Android is open source, it is never installed as is on a cell phone. Most cell phones come with closed source code, sometimes by Google, sometimes by other companies. They can have full access to the hardware, and activate things like camera on-demand.
There is probably a way (hackers welcome? Electrical engineers?) to check whether some parts of the hardware are being accessed.
How often is it used in practice? I do not know at all.

Some people flash their disk and install Replicant, an open source and more privacy friendly operating system based on Android. I remember Richard Stallman said he doesn't own a cell phone because he did not renounce to privacy. So Replicant might not be enough (at least not with all hardware).
 

DaveC426913

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As long as there are stingray like devices around (legal and not legal), your privacy is defeated no matter what kind of phone you use. There are some of those devices that can operate from high altitude aircraft.
I am OK with that. Cellphones talk to cell towers - that alone means there is no reasonable expectation of locational privacy.

But being able to control the privacy of my own conversations is something I still expect to have. So if that were happening, I would be doing questionable things to my phone.
 

gleem

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Your phone may not be listening to you but it may be tracking you. Today in a spot on ABC's Good Morning America they demonstrated that an Android phone with no simm card and not connected to the internet tracked the persons travel around NY city logging the progress of the individual and noting the mode of movement from walking to riding a bicycle to riding in a cab. This to me is an invasion of privacy.
 

anorlunda

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Your phone may not be listening to you but it may be tracking you. Today in a spot on ABC's Good Morning America they demonstrated that an Android phone with no simm card and not connected to the internet tracked the persons travel around NY city logging the progress of the individual and noting the mode of movement from walking to riding a bicycle to riding in a cab. This to me is an invasion of privacy.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court wastes its time on cases where police put a GPS tracker on the suspect, or the suspect's car. Why worry about that? Technology has already made that police action unnecessary.

@gleem , Instruments carried in high altitude aircraft can simultaneously track all phones in an entire country or continent.
 

russ_watters

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Your phone may not be listening to you but it may be tracking you. Today in a spot on ABC's Good Morning America they demonstrated that an Android phone with no simm card and not connected to the internet tracked the persons travel around NY city logging the progress of the individual and noting the mode of movement from walking to riding a bicycle to riding in a cab.
How is this a revelation? It's been a standard function of Apple and Android phones for years. There's a menu option in the maps app on the phone and computer.

...and it has nothing whatsoever to do with phone functions, so I don't know why they bothered to take the simm card out. Do people forget what smartphones are? Despite the name, they mostly aren't phones:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/what-do-smart-phones-partially-replace.932077/
This to me is an invasion of privacy.
People need to pay attention to what they are buying for themselves -- it's not just you: GMA apparently thought this totally mundane and [should be] obvious thing was worthy of a "news" report, and we've had similar discussions on PF a number of times.

When you buy an Every-Conceivable-Electronic-Device-in-One, it needs to collect information from a variety of sources in order to function and depending on what that information is used for, store it, analyze it, etc. And yes, maybe even send some of it back to the device's/software's manufacturer so they can use it for marketing when network connected. Personal computers have been internet connected for 25 years, so I don't understand why this keeps coming up as if it were something new or surprising or somehow wrong/bad.

You have control over everything, but you'll need to put some thought into what you want it to do and what trade-offs in functionality vs "privacy" you are willing to make.

I put "privacy" in quotes because I don't necessarily agree that this has anything to do with privacy. But I'm not sure what understanding and/or speculation is behind the use of the word. Strictly speaking, a device that you own that is *not * connected to the internet (the GMA example) can't "spy" on you because you own it and it isn't sharing the information with anyone else. It doesn't "spy" on you any more than a pen and paper does.

Here's a thread specifically about location tracking we had back in September:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/my-app-knows-where-im-going-and-tells-everyone-too.955136/
 
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gleem

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anorlunda

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While perhaps not recording or actively listening to you an app could study you and your habits and produce a report identifying traits or activities that might be of interest to any number of parties.
It doesn't have to be a phone.

Surveillance camera video can automatically analyzed to flag suspicious behavior.

The time intervals between keystrokes as you type in the PF post editor, can be analyzed to reveal your mood, or used as an identifier as a biometric.

There are also reports that the steering wheel in your car can detect impairment of the driver.

We have only seen the tip of the iceberg of how intrusive technology can be regarding privacy.
 

DaveC426913

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I don't think I am alarmed by devices that monitor my behavior while I'm using them. That's de regueur in the 21st century.


It's the ones that monitor my behavior when I'm not using them that give me the creepies.
 
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When it pops up a big red spot and says, "I'm sorry Dave..."

QED ?
 

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