/ 29 April 2021

Your smartphone is probably spying on you

Network Repeaters, Base Transceiver.
Big data is watching you: Protective monitoring apps actually increase the chance of your phone’s data being compromised. (Olgaviare)

Your smartphone may appear to mysteriously know your latest interests and suggest them even before you hit the search button — because it could be acting as a pocket spy for marketers. 

A recent study by private network service provider NordVPN found that granting microphone and camera permission to certain apps doesn’t mean they are only active during the use of these apps.  

The report found a 5% increase in monitoring apps installation in the last year and a 560% increase in apps that are marketed to detect unwanted monitoring, mostly by parents to protect what their children can see and do on their smartphones. 

The report also confirms that smartphones are spying on users, even without the monitoring apps.

A virtual private network (VPN) provides a user with anonymity and privacy, particularly on public networks. This makes it more challenging for a potential cyber-spy to steal online data, because it appears as gibberish to a third party. Browsing the internet using a VPN hides your IP address to disguise your personal information and topic search.

Although parents and guardians thought it safe to have monitoring apps on their children’s phones during Covid-19 when the world was forced to go digital, NordVPN found that downloading a monitoring app increases the chances of a third party accessing personal information.

According to the report, downloading a monitoring app means gathering information such as GPS location, applying a content filter to search engines, and managing time spent on digitals and social media.

It found that while it seems impossible to use some apps without permitting them to access your phone, granting permission to activate an app means that the app can make use of this access at any time.

NordVPN digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson said: “When you ask Google Assistant or Siri to find something, this information is used for online advertising. It’s no different from typing something into Google Search. If you’re looking for a car dealership in your city, related ads will start chasing you across the internet. In a way, a virtual assistant is just another search engine.”

Apple has admitted to using the data of its users to better its services, and in 2019 released an apology, as it encrypted personal information.

The company said Siri collects and stores information from a user’s device, such as accessing a contact list when it comes across an uncommon name, to ensure that it recognises the name correctly.

“Siri also relies on data from your interactions with it. This includes the audio of your request and a computer-generated transcript of it. Apple sometimes uses the audio recording of a request, as well as the transcript, in a machine learning process that trains Siri to improve,” reads the statement.

But the Apple team emphasised that they dedicate themselves to protecting the privacy of their customers by suspending human grading of Siri requests. This means eliminating the process of listening to Siri recordings for an evaluation process.

The NordVPN report suggests that the best way to set a trap for your phone is to discuss a topic clearly and loudly next to your phone, with a careful selection of keywords. If this search is suggested on your search engine or advertised on your social media, you will need to review permissions you have allowed your apps to access and download a VPN to protect personal data.

“Don’t share too much information with your phone. The less it knows, the better,” said Markuson.