By Praveen Kannan and Anna Strokolyst The Hotspot Shield team believes the internet should be open and secure …
There is a theory out there, and you may even believe it yourself, that Facebook is listening to you. The reason people think this is because they might find themselves talking to a friend about something like a new bed for their dog and then discover, the very next day, that their Facebook feed has become filled with ads for dog beds—despite never having searched for one online.
This is rather creepy, and right now, we don’t know for sure if the app is really doing it. But what we do know is that some smartphone apps definitely are, and there may be more than you think.
Beware of the microphone
There is a company out there called Alphonso. By using what’s called Automated Content Recognition technology, Alphonso’s software can listen for certain signals in television ads to see what you are currently watching. Then, the data is sold for advertising and marketing purposes. According to the New York Times, by “identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see, the information can then be used to target ads more precisely and to try to analyze things like which ads prompted a person to go to a car dealership.”
Currently, around 1,000 games use Alphonso; at least 250 apps running the software are downloadable on Android in Google Play—popular smartphone apps like Pool 3D, Beer Pong: Trickshot, Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin, Honey Quest, and many others, including apps your kids probably use.
There will be more, too; Apple’s App Store doesn’t allow you to search for terms such as “Alphonso automated” or “Alphonso software” like Google Play does, so it’s harder to tell. But Alphonso did inform the New York Times that it has a partnership with the popular music app, Shazam.
Alphonso uses your phone’s microphone even when the app it’s installed on isn’t open. The software is so sensitive it can reportedly manage this even when your phone is in your pocket. The company has said that it is not listening to the actual conversations you have, but many people are not so sure.
So, what can you do?
Revoke access to smartphone apps
You might not realize how much access you give your smartphone apps. Even if they are not actually tracking your information and conversations, you have an open microphone on each device. If one of your apps suddenly has an issue with security and a hacker can get access to your microphone, there is no telling what they can do. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself.
The first step is to look at your settings. You should determine which smartphone apps you gave your microphone access to, and unless the app truly needs it to function, you should revoke that access; when you download a new app that wants access to your mic, ask yourself the question: Why would this application need it?
You can always go the more primitive route to protect your device’s microphone: Take a pair of earbuds with a built-in microphone, clip off the cord, and by plugging it in, you will block the phone’s internal microphone from being used. This is an easy solution, albeit rather inelegant, but be aware, there are other things in your home listening in on your conversations.
Listen up, TVs
Smart TVs are also listening, even if you don’t know it. There are brands on the market that have given their televisions the ability to listen in on their surroundings. Sound a little freaky? Fortunately, it’s simple to turn this ability off. Here’s how:
- Samsung – Browse to the Smart Hub. Click on Terms & Policy and look for SyncPlus and Marketing. Choose the disable option.
- Vizio – Browse to the System setting. Click on Reset & Admit, and then choose Smart Interactivity. There, you can choose “Off.”
- LG – Browse to Options. Choose LivePlus, and then click it to Off.
Then there’s your Amazon Echo. We’ve talked at length about the Echo listening into your conversations, and also how to stop it. Be sure to check out our previous post on how IoT devices are invading our privacy and perform some simple steps to protect yourself.
And while you’re being proactive, install Hotspot Shield VPN to secure your online conversations by encrypting your data, especially when on free, unsecured public WiFi like in a cafe or airport. After all, your private conversations are no one else’s business. Especially when they’re only about dog beds.