Are Our Devices Tapped?

Are Our Devices Tapped?
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Ever wondered if your devices are tapped? International director on the Interaction Design Association Board and MD of Aus/NZ DesignIt Katja Forbes reveals all in this insightful guest post.

Have you ever had the creepy experience where you discuss a topic with a friend, and then next thing, there is that specific product you were discussing, in an advertisement via social media?  You know, when you discuss wedding dresses with your friend but have never actually search for wedding dresses on your own phone. And then the next time you are on Instagram, you are inundated with wedding dress ads. We have almost all had an experience just like this happen to us – or know someone who has.

Smartphones are used today for a multitude of different reasons, and being a phone is just one of them (ironic since the word phone makes up the title of the device). We access social media, use Google maps to find destinations, play games and find music all on our phone. We can also access podcasts of any nature we desire, do our banking and make small, or more significant purchases. We can even search for the love of our life, and make video calls to more loved ones who live further than we prefer to travel.

Are our smartphones even smarter than we give them credit for? Do they have the ability to listen to our conversations without being prompted to do so, and then act on it?  This is clearly the realm of private investigators and federal police, and quite frankly, if this were true, I strongly believe we should be told about it.

Recently, Triple J set out to test this phenomenon and work out whether this particular conspiracy theory is valid. Two of the crew discussed cuckoo clocks in proximity of their phones and then checked a week later to see whether they were being shown advertisements about cuckoo clocks. They weren’t.

Senior editor at tech website CNet, Claire Reilly, reassured them that their phones were in fact not able to listen to them. But perhaps her explanation for these coincidences is even more dystopian and frightening: your phone isn’t listening: it’s watching. So how does that apply to this type of experience?

“Well, think of it like this. When both of you are together, your smartphone is not listening to your conversation, but it recognises that two phones and two Facebook accounts came into proximity because it’s using your location services, it’s working out if you’re next to the same Bluetooth beacon or WIFI hotspot,” Claire said.

On top of that info, Facebook already knows you’re at the marrying age and in a relationship, so it decides that engagement ring ads and wedding dresses are relevant for you. There are a lot of questions that come from this discovery – what information is being used, how is it being stored and used, who can access it? Our movements are being tracked unless we deactivate the location tracker, and in turn this influences what we are shown online too.

Claire added: “It’s tracking what you’re spending and it’s able to match your email address on your loyalty card at a particular store to the email address you’re logging into Facebook with.”

So whilst we aren’t being eavesdropped on, the reality is quite different. Effectively our phones are putting different pieces of the puzzle together to determine information that we may be interested in.

Many people don’t have an understanding of what personal information is actually being collected and how it is being used. Perhaps there should be greater attempts to explain to us and then we can become more involved in knowing what information we are wittingly giving, and how it is then being used, so we have more control over what we are shown.

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