Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Scarily Appropriate Advertising: Are Smartphone Apps Secretly Listening?


Are apps spying on smartphone users to collect information for targeted advertising? A report shows that this is technically possible, but the eerily appropriate ads are probably based on completely different methods.

For years, we’ve heard reports of users seeing ads on Facebook and Instagram or elsewhere on the internet about the exact same topics they recently discussed with friends. Smartphones were on the table. Therefore, the suspicion is obvious that the devices or applications have been secretly listening.

A recent report from BR showed that this is technically possible. But not everything that can be done will be done. Google, Facebook & Co. have completely different means of obtaining the necessary information much more efficiently and completely legally.

espionage with permission

The easiest way for curious apps is to give them permission to use your smartphone’s microphone. On iPhones, however, they might appear with an orange dot in the status bar. Microphone access is also shown in the current Android 12 (green dot), but most smartphones run older versions of the operating system. But even then, snoopers risk getting caught if only one user checks the permissions and reports the app.

Sure, many apps like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok are deliberately given permission to post videos, among other things. An expert showed the BR reporter Rebekah Ciesielski also that applications can also recognize when they are being watched and act cautiously accordingly. However, the applications of the Internet giants have been and continue to be examined, although the effort is great.

Catching them would be a jackpot for any security professional. And if that happens, it could spell doom for the company. So you can be sure that they are not stupid enough to use their own apps for (illegal) spying.

What does Facebook do with motion sensors?

However, the expert also showed that it is theoretically possible to record conversations in a much more sophisticated way using motion sensors and speaker vibrations. Last year, security researchers discovered that all of Facebook’s iOS apps collect this same data. be able.

And in order not to attract attention by sending large audio files to client servers, according to Ciesielski, attackers could try to convert speech into text on the smartphone, as Google does with its recording application, for example.

Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that Facebook & Co. secretly spy on users. But the question remains, why would they resort to illegal and rather inefficient means when it is much easier for them to steal information from users in a completely legal, detailed and massive way?

you just don’t need it

Browsing the internet leaves traces in its wake that don’t mean much on their own, but together over time they paint a pretty accurate picture of a user. It is particularly easy for those who have accounts with the Internet giants to grant them extensive access rights and perhaps also use these accounts to log in to other services.

In addition, there is content viewed on social networks, subscribed channels, people, companies or organizations that you follow and many more details. If you then also give a digital assistant access to activities, screen contents, calendar entries, and other information it needs to help you, you lead an almost transparent life.

To get an idea of ​​how fast and how much is being collected, you can simply look up what Google has only learned in the last 24 hours or days. The company does not hide this, one click my google activities enough.

Voodoo dolls instead of eavesdropping

Former company employee Tristan Harris said in 2019 in a Discussion panel, Facebook or Google could practically create avatars with all the information collected and use machine learning to understand the behavior or wishes of users. “All I have to do is simulate what conversation this voodoo doll is having and I know the conversation you were having without having to listen to the microphone.”

If you follow the link to the discussion board, you end up on Youtube and Google has more information. It is almost impossible not to leave clear traces on the Internet. It is doable to some extent, but the more you try, the more tedious, awkward, and awkward it becomes.

treacherous friends

Even relatively cautious users are not a blank slate for Facebook or Google, metadata makes it possible. In a way, they are more valuable than actual conversations, text input, or clicks. Because they provide a lot of information without much data and above all they help to bring it together.

The metadata refers to who was in contact with whom and when. If a user is friends with people who like pizza, techno and Italy, business models may assume that this is also the case for this user.

If your friends searched for Italian olive oil before a personal meeting and perhaps also exchanged opinions on a social network, the user sees an ad for the corresponding product for good reason. Possibly right after his friends told him about olive oil and how shocked he is now.

Random hits directed approximately

Cookies, which temporarily or permanently store information about 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 even track users across many websites, often over time.

Ultimately, chance also plays a role. Especially when you reject personalized advertisements in services and browsers, you see a lot of advertisements that you are not interested in at all. If it’s not completely absurd, you don’t even notice it, or maybe just subconsciously.

insightful experiment

If you talked about something beforehand and then see it on Instagram a short time later, it stands out and it seems like you can only explain it by eavesdropping. Account details such as gender, age and place of residence are enough for social networks to clearly limit ads. The probability of such random hits is not that small.

A little experiment can be very revealing. You meet friends and talk on your smartphone across the table about a product that no one in the group has ever been interested in, doesn’t suit anyone in the group, and isn’t common enough to constantly see ads. It is important that the topic is discussed personally on the site. Then check to see if there are any suitable ads on Instagram & Co.

Ebenezer Robbins
Ebenezer Robbins
Introvert. Beer guru. Communicator. Travel fanatic. Web advocate. Certified alcohol geek. Tv buff. Subtly charming internet aficionado.

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