Are Our Smartphones Listening to Us and the Environment?

One of the biggest concerns of many people is whether smartphones are listening to us or the environment. In fact, most of the people are almost sure of this situation because we see that the ads shown are too successful to be a coincidence. Now let’s explain this in a little technical language.

Your smartphones won’t listen to you unless you command them but the situation is scarier …

Your smartphones won’t listen to you until you tell them the command (Hey Siri, Ok Google, Cortana, etc.). If not, how do they hear the command? Every device that uses a voice command algorithm has a small voice cache. This cache contains the word of the command and your voice analysis. This cache is very small and is reserved so that only the relevant command can be detected. This is even present in speakers that turn on and off with a voice command today. If this is what we mean by “listening”, yes they are listening. But they don’t listen to you like someone you chat with or a friend you talk to. You must have given your command so that they can listen to you.

You can listen to Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethics expert, on this. Let’s explain what he means here. IT workers like us understand that you’re talking about “machine learning”. Machine learning is the algorithm of machines that have partially gained artificial intelligence and perform new learning according to the commands it receives. If you return home from work at the same time every day and turn on navigation from your smartphone when you get in the car, your smartphone can turn on navigation at the same time without asking you or he can offer it. If your GPS is always on, it can find out the location of your parking lot, and it can perform the same process when you enter the parking lot, regardless of the time. This is machine learning.

Now, in the light of this information, let’s examine the “ads” by turning to our topic.

We all usually use Wi-Fi for our smartphones when we are at home. This wi-fi is allocated to you by a single internet provider. You only have one IP. So there is 1 IP for all users of this Wi-Fi… If someone in your home wants to buy shoes and searches the internet, it is natural that shoe ads will be shown to you as well but this may sound like it is because the person who wants to buy shoes has mentioned it at home. Let’s hard things up a little bit more now. You may not be using the home internet or you may have done your shoe research while at work but your GPS may be turned on. The fact that a phone with GPS turned on is always side by side with other phones with GPS turned on, it may be enough for the machine to verify business friendship or family ties with those people. People with family or colleague ties are likely to talk about their interests in the same setting, even if they don’t have the same interests. Therefore, it is possible to show them this too. Of course it’s not that simple, but I’ve illustrated it like this to make it easier.

You will also receive shoes ads for reading this article because I’ve mentioned shoes 6 times so far. Your machine realized that you want to buy a shoes (7th time). You spent 3 minutes on a page talking about shoes but it won’t show you the ad t00th8rush or t00th p4ste because I censored it.

The Voodoo Doll as a smartphone
The Voodoo Doll as a smartphone

Going back to your stunt man… By the way, your stunt man name is “Voodoo Doll”. Yes, a Voodoo doll. Companies call it that way. All the activities, friendships, food habits, age, gender, etc. you do are imitated by him. It uses every piece of information to look like you. In fact, a friend you forgot in your guide is described as “an uncommon friend” for him.

Let’s examine it now… If you are a woman and your friend is getting married (via Whatsapp conversations, number of calls etc.) and your level of intimacy is machine-learned, it is natural for you to see an advertisement for wedding items or home gifts. However, even if you have never spoken about it in written form, you have definitely spoken to your friend in a face-to-face setting. Since you did not mention this in print, you would think these ads were showing to you because you were speaking but the truth of the matter is that you have machine learning and a stunt man. In fact, your stunt man is so smart and active that it’s normal to surprise you. If you are pregnant and search for baby items more and more, your stunt man is 90% certain to be pregnant. Maybe you are not sure at this rate. But even the increasing frequency of your research makes him almost sure. Your stunt man is ahead of you in the digital world. It may also start showing you bank loan ads while you are looking for baby items because your stunt man will give birth soon, and financial needs are likely to increase. If you are interested in these bank loan advertisements or talk about it in a print medium, your stunt man is sure that you need money. When it learns to your baby’s name given, it will be almost sure of its gender and will show you advertisements that match its gender.

When your baby becomes an adult and starts using the phone, his name, gender, food habits, political opinion of his family, close friends, etc. will be known by the stunt mother. Also, his will be both a stunt man and a stunt mother. That’s why I said the situation was more frightening than at rest.

It is technically possible for an application that you have given microphone permission to listen with cached environment, even if the environment is not continuous and using filters for some words in the environment too… Listening constantly draws attention with its battery consumption. For example, he may be sensitive to hearing the word “diamond” in the environment … But as I said before, the situation is more scary because I’m sure what you do on the internet is more special than what you can talk about. So the part we need to focus on is “machine learning” and your stunt man. Considering that even the keyboards on our smartphones collect data, we can keep our perspective wider than “resting”.

You can visit the link below to learn about the information Google has collected on behalf of you today.

Kayhan Kirbas

Cyber Security Expert | Instructor | CEH | MCT