Creepy new smartphone surveillance tricks

One of my favorite gadget gossip websites, Engadget, had a post last week from Violet Blue, an internet privacy activist, about a cute new piece of snooping software called SilverPush. (Warning: Violet Blue is an internet privacy activist. But she’s also a porn artist and porn philosopher (!). Also a somewhat radical feminist. Visiting some parts of her own website can be ‘not safe for work’.)

It seems that some phone apps (but it’s not clear which ones) activate your smartphone’s microphone, and listen for signals being sent from your TV or computer. When it hears that signal (it’s not clear whether the signal is inaudible or masked in other noise) it sends a bunch of information about you to the advertiser you are listening to on your TV or computer.

What happens next is that your phone, or another computer you are logged into, or a tablet or whatever, will serve you up ads based on the signal that was sent to your phone. As Ms Blue puts it

The service it delivers to advertisers is to create a complete and accurate up-to-the-minute profile of what you do, what you watch, which sites you visit, all the devices you use and more.

The result is that your phone is watching you all the time, and making note of which ads you’ve seen so that it can send you more, including being able to text or phone you (one of the pieces of information that it ‘shares’ is your cellphone number).

Apparently the Federal Trade Commission was a little creeped out by this too, and told them to start warning people they were doing this. Apps that use SilverPush apparently include some Samsung apps and Candy Crush. They claim that no US companies are using their service, but some have questioned that, since the list of companies they contract with is a secret.

Here’s another, perhaps a little less panicked view. Still, I’d recommend that when you install a new app, and it asks whether you want it to use the microphone, you might want to say ‘no’.

Interestingly, the Neilsen company (the ones who track who’s watching which TV shows) uses a similar technology, but on a much more open and aboveboard basis. They ask their raters to wear a ‘pager’ that also listens to the TV or radio for subsonic tones identifying which program is on. But of course, Neilsen contracts with the people wearing the pager, and pays them to do so.

For more general musing on the state of privacy with respect to the data that companies collect about us, you can watch this rather long, but entertaining talk by Bruce Schneier at a recent Cato Institute Conference on Surveillance.

Tomorrow I’ll post a blog on how to check to see if your smartphone is using your camera or microphone for things you might not know about.

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