PHOENIX — Imagine having a conversation about buying a kayak, and a few minutes later you unlock your phone and check Facebook and there's an ad for a kayak.
Was your phone listening?
Yes, says social media and computer science professor Jen Golbeck.
“Your phone’s spying on you,” Golbeck said in a recent TikTok video. “Yes, it totally is. But it’s much more complicated than you think it is.
Here are three ways your phone could be spying on you, and what you can do about it.
Golbeck said it’s possible for an app to turn on your phone’s microphone and listen in on your conversations.
It sounds far-fetched but it's already happened and someone got caught.
La Liga, a European soccer team, got busted for having an app that turned on a phone’s microphone and listened to what was going on around them.
“if you went into a bar, it would listen in the background to see if the game was on TV and then check a database to see if that bar had paid the licensing fee,” Golbeck said.
La Liga was fined €250,000.
Aside from sports teams, intelligence agencies have apparently been using the same technique for years, according to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
But Golbeck said that kind of spying is pretty rare.
You’re Giving Information Away
You’re already giving your phone all the information anyone could ever need about you.
Your phone is already sending details about itself and its location to various companies.
Golbeck said it’s all in the terms of service, which almost no one ever reads. That’s when you consent to let companies know where you are, where you’re going, what you shop for, and a phone number to tie it all together
“It's sending the ID of your phone, your location, other apps on your phone, all kinds of information,” Golbeck said. “It's just being shoveled off to places that you don't know.”
You may have dozens of apps that seem unrelated and from different companies.
Like Instagram for your photos, WhatsApp for your texts, Crowdtangle to track your own influence.
All separate apps, but they’re all owned by one company: Facebook.
A Huge Database
We installed an app that tracks every time an app sends back information about you.
Over one weekend those apps sent information back more than a hundred times in one day.
Over a weekend, almost a thousand times.
Golbeck said that information is being compiled in huge databases. They may not have your name attached, but they know tiny details about you.
“In my lab, we can analyze your Twitter feed on the day you enter Alcoholics Anonymous and tell you with 85% accuracy if you're going to stay sober for 90 days,” Golbeck said. “We can predict if your relationship is going to last.”
What You Can Do
Golbeck said your best chance to prevent your phone from spying on you is to install more apps to stop other apps from tracking you.
You can install a virtual private network (VPN) app that will keep your activity private.
Some of those VPNs will also keep track of which apps are the hungriest for your information, so you can delete them if you want.
But Golbeck said the best thing we can do is to pass laws guaranteeing our online privacy.
In the European Union, people own all the information that’s collected about them and can have it deleted if they want.
“We need laws in the US, say people own data about them. And right now the law is that companies own data that you share with them,” Golbeck said.
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