Do apps eavesdrop on smartphone users to gather information for targeted advertising? A report shows that this is technically feasible, but oddly appropriate ads rely on entirely different methods.
For years, we’ve heard reports from users who see ads on Facebook, Instagram, or elsewhere on the Internet about the same topics they’ve been talking about recently with friends. Smartphones were on the table. So the suspicion is clear that the devices or apps were secretly listening.
A recent BR report showed that this is technically feasible. But not everything will be done. It owns Google, Facebook & Co. Completely different means of obtaining the necessary information more efficiently and completely legally.
Spying with permission
The easiest way for weird apps is to give them permission to use the smartphone’s microphone. However, on iPhones, they can be given an orange dot in the status bar. Microphone access is also shown in the current Android 12 (the green dot), but most smartphones are running older versions of the operating system. But until then, snoopers risk getting caught if only one user checks permissions and reports the app.
Sure, many apps like Instagram, Facebook or TikTok are intentionally given permission to post videos, among other things. Show reporter expert BR Rebecca Siselsky Applications can also recognize when times are observed and act accordingly with caution. However, the applications of the Internet giants have been and continue to be scrutinized, even if the effort is significant.
Catching them would be a jackpot for any security professional. And if that happens, it could destroy the company. So you can rest assured that they are not stupid enough to use their own (illegal) spying apps.
What does Facebook do with motion sensors?
However, the expert also explained that it is theoretically possible to record conversations in a more complex way using motion sensors and the vibrations of the speakers. Last year, security researchers found that all Facebook iOS apps can collect this same data.
And in order not to draw attention by sending large audio files to client servers, according to Ciesielski, attackers could try to convert speech to text on the smartphone, as Google does with its recording app, for example.
So it cannot be ruled out that Facebook & Co. Secretly eavesdropping on users. But the question remains, why would they resort to illegal and somewhat ineffective means when it would be easier for them to steal user information in a completely legal, detailed and aggregated way?
You just don’t need it
Navigating the Internet leaves trails in your wake that don’t mean much on their own, but combined over time paint a very accurate picture of the user. It is especially easy for those who have accounts with Internet giants, giving them extensive access rights and possibly also using these accounts to log into other services.
In addition, there is content displayed on social networks, shared channels, people, companies or organizations that you follow, and many other details. If you also give a digital assistant access to activities, screen contents, calendar entries, and other information they need to help, you live a semi-transparent life.
To get an idea of how quickly and how much data is collected, you can simply look up what Google alone has learned in the past 24 hours or days. The company does not hide this with a single click My activities on Google Adequate.
Voodoo dolls instead of eavesdropping
The group’s former employee, Tristan Harris, said in a panel discussion in 2019 that Facebook or Google could virtually generate avatars with all the information collected and use machine learning to understand users’ behavior or desires. “All I have to do is simulate the conversation that this voodoo doll is having knowing the conversation you were just having without having to listen to the microphone.”
If you follow the link to the panel discussion, you will end up on Youtube and Google with more information. It is difficult not to leave visible traces on the Internet. It is somewhat possible, but the more you try, the more boring, uncomfortable, and confusing it becomes.
Even relatively wary users aren’t a blank page for Facebook or Google, metadata makes this possible. In a way, they are more valuable than real conversations, text entry, or clicks. Because it provides a lot of information without a great deal of data and above all helps in putting it together.
Metadata relates to who was in contact with whom and when. If the user is friends with people who love pizza, techno, and Italy, then corporate models can assume that this is also the case for that user.
If their friends search for Italian olive oil before a personal meeting and may also exchange views on one of the social networks, the user will see an advertisement for a similar product for a good reason. Perhaps after his friends talked to him about olive oil and how totally surprised he is now.
Almost random results were targeted
Cookies, which temporarily or permanently store information from a website visited on a device, also play an important role in user analysis. Third-party cookies allow advertisers to recognize users, and tracking cookies so you can track them across many websites, often over time.
In the end, opportunity also plays a major role. Especially when you dismiss personalized ads in services and browsers, you see a lot of ads that you don’t care about at all. If it wasn’t completely silly, you wouldn’t even notice – or maybe just subconsciously.
If you talk about something beforehand and then see it on Instagram a short time later, it stands out and it looks like you can only explain it by tapping. Account details such as gender, age and place of residence are enough for social networks to clearly restrict ads. So the probability of such a random strike is not small.
It can be a very revealing little experience. You meet friends and talk with your smartphone at the table about a product that was never interested in anyone in the group, does not suit anyone in the group and is not so familiar that you constantly see ads about it. It is important that the topic is first discussed in person on the site. Then you look to see if there are appropriate ads on Instagram & Co.
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