Are Your Digital Devices Recording Everything You Say?

Ever said something and a related advertisement is shown to you?

By Bella
Are Your Digital Devices Recording Everything You Say?

Our Reliance on our Digital Devices

They say “Keep your close friends close, and your enemies even closer”. Nonetheless, we probably keep our phones the closest to us. Most of us feel the need to stay connected 24/7 and some of us are even guilty of using our phones in the toilet. We may never let our phones out of our sight-because they are so important to us. They are an integral part of our lives whether it is online shopping, using Facebook, Instagram, texting Friends and Coworkers, or playing mobile games.

Is Your Smartphone Recording Everything You Say?

So it is the year 2020. We know that AI(Artificial intelligence) is getting smarter every day. Some of us even have conspiracy theories that the government may be conducting surveillance on ordinary citizens. Thus, thinking that your smartphone is spying on you, would be a legitimate concern in this day and age.

Recently, some academics and researchers tried to debunk the myth that your cellphone is recording everything you say. According to Business Insider, they had scoured over 17260 apps and the hypothesis proved inconclusive. On the contrary, they found that credible evidence that screenshots and recordings were being relayed to third parties such as data analytics companies through mobile apps.

On the other hand, the fine print on many user agreements for apps actually states that audio could be recorded and used for advertising and marketing purposes. In fact, if you reference certain brands or keywords while talking on the phone, it is able to pick up on these words and display advertisements about related products on your social media feed. A reporter from VICE conducted an experiment where he would use certain phrases repeatedly while the microphone function was turned on. Corresponding ads that were related to the phrases he used popped up on Facebook.

Is Your Voice Assistant (Siri, Alexa) Recording Everything You Say?

Unfortunately, smart speakers are listening in to your conversations and what you say, more than expected. Vox highlighted a study by Northwestern University which showed that smart speakers were recording what you say 19 times a day on accident, and some recordings could be as long as 43 seconds. Most of us hypothesize that they have some “trigger words” which would activate the voice recording function. Several speakers were tested in the study, including the Google Home Mini, a first-generation Apple HomePod, Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Invoke, and the second- and third-generation Amazon Echo Dots.

Reruns of television shows spanning 125 hours per series were shown to them. The findings were inconclusive, but when they recorded conversations accidentally, 50 percent of the recorded clips were 6 seconds long at most. Despite that, the other 50 percent of the recorded clips were more than 6 seconds long, and some were much significantly longer, up to 43 seconds. Ironically, these recordings are used by software companies to prevent more cases of accidental recording.

As for Alexa, the usage of artificial intelligence means that recordings of our voices are constantly being collected, to improve the voice recognition software. The software experts realized that they had to strengthen Alexa’s word bank and familiarise her with accents from different countries as well as slang.

Is Your Laptop Webcam Spying on You?

We have reached a new technological age, and nothing is safe-it is actually possible for your webcam to spy on you. Experienced hackers employ the usage of Trojan horses which could worm their way into your computer’s webcam. Ever clicked on a suspicious email that belongs to your junk folder? These malicious messages may masquerade as ads for penis enlargement software or a sales pitch for getting rich, and contain Remote Administration tools to gain access to your computer. Their clickbait email titles are an easy bait, luring consumers who are not web-savvy enough.

Ever wondered why some apps ask for permission to access your camera and microphone? It may seem innocuous, but it is not. 
These are the implications of enabling app access:

1. The front and back camera could be used by the app

2. As long as the app is running, you could be recorded unknowingly

3. Pictures and videos could be taken without your permission

4. These videos and pictures could be posted online without your consent (immediately)

5. The facial recognition software could be running in the background, to observe your facial features and expressions

6. Your interactions with the camera could be shown live on the Internet

7. The app is able to tell whether you are using your device with your friend or by yourself

8. Make a 3D model that bears a close resemblance to you, based on the face recognition software which is able to match photos of yourself on the internet to the images captured in the video stream.

Ways to Keep Your Privacy Intact

Whenever an app requires you to record your voice, you can opt to open the app in sandbox mode.
You should restrict your apps from accessing your microphone. Whenever your app has a notification asking you to “allow” microphone access, disable it, or press “No”. 

Turn off OK Siri if you are an iPhone user by going to the settings page, and then go to Siri Search. Switch the button for “Listen” to off. 

If you are an Android user, you may want to turn Google Assistant off. Firstly, go to Google Assistant Settings, press down on the phone’s home button, or say “Ok Google”. Next, you should click on the file drawer icon on the upper right-hand corner on your phone, then click on the menu which displays three-dots. Click on more and go to settings. Subsequently, you should keep scrolling until you reach the devices section and click on your phone, then toggle the blue slider button to grey in the Google assistant section.

If your webcam is not the built-in type, you should promptly disconnect it from the computer when it is not in use. You can also use an adhesive such as sticky tape to cover your webcam’s camera. Antivirus software is crucial to prevent malware and trojan horses from destroying your computer and invading your privacy. 

Nord VPN suggests that having a firewall enabled would help to prevent hackers from gaining access to your network. They also strongly encourage IT users to invest in a VPN to protect themselves from unwanted threats, especially when using public Wi-Fi.

Before turning on the webcam and recording access for apps and websites, think carefully whether it is needed by the app.

Also, when you take your computer or laptop to a repair center, go to official and licensed vendors, and remove any suspicious programs from your computer. Moreover, try not to use the remote administration tool for computer troubleshooting issues, such as  TeamViewer, unless you are sure that the technician would not hack into your computer.

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As technology improves, hacking tools will become more smart and sophisticated over time. Hackers are learning how to refine their modus operandi as well. To prevent yourself from getting hacked, you should keep abreast of the latest technological trends and familiarise yourself with various tools that could be used to compromise your safety. The onus is on us to become smart and savvy consumers as we navigate this digital world, fraught with dangers and scams.