Alexa, Are You Secretly Recording Me?

Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Era


Words || Gabrielle Edwards

Over the last few years, reports of digital devices listening into conversations, collecting user data and recording all the activity of its owners, has risen drastically. This has led to devices such as mobile phones, home assistant smart speakers and social media sites to come under greater scrutiny in the hands of their suspicious users. While NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was once seen as a distant grim dystopia, our reality is starting to look a little too similar to the horrors of Oceania. As someone who is cautiously optimistic about new technology, I thought it would be worthwhile to look into the rumours about what exactly our devices know about us and how this media surveillance impacts our privacy.

By now, it is generally known and accepted that our computers and smartphones monitor our behaviour to some extent. Geolocation tracking has been around for over ten years now, meaning that we basically expect stores and services near us to be recommended. In fact, there are marketing companies specialising in geolocation tracking that use algorithms to send your advertisements to those within a certain number of kilometres of your business.

A 2017 study by Yale University’s Private Lab revealed that at least three in four Android apps used a third-party tracker – a cookie placed on your device from a website to remember details such as location, usually for advertising. While there are ways to limit your phone from tracking your location, it often comes at the expense of losing specific features on your phone, including google maps or checking the weather. For example, as much as I don’t need Snapchat to know my location, how else can I show off the fact that I have ventured outside my home without the cute location filters.

Despite changing some settings, there are still loopholes companies exploit in order to access your data. A 2018 AP investigation revealed that Google still collected data on the whereabouts of Apple and Android users, despite having their ‘location history’ turned off.  This means Google still gathers the user’s location information, though only the users themselves are unable to access their own history. In order to fully turn off location tracking on your phone, the process is a little more complex, despite Google insisting that their settings are perfectly clear. In 2016, the American Federal Trade Commission sued InMobi, a mobile advertising company that tracked consumers’ location regardless of their privacy settings. This demonstrates how, regardless of your privacy settings, your data could still be collected, and while one company was caught and exposed, this may not be the case for others.  

A couple of years ago Facebook came under fire after conspiracies spread that the app recorded conversations and used this data to personally curate advertisements.  In 2016, YouTube user NEVILLE uploaded a video where he and his wife tested this theory. They spent the day constantly mentioning needing to buy “cat food” (off-screen) despite not owning a cat and therefore not having it as part of their search history. They then show a Facebook advertisement for a cat food brand they claim appeared two days later. Despite the video only being two minutes long and edited in such a way that it could be fabricated, the video still gained over 1.8 million views with thousands of comments of users sharing similar experiences they have had. Personally, I’ve had a few similar experiences of mentioning a certain brand or product and seeing it advertised on my Facebook or Instagram feed a day later. While these could definitely be coincidences, I’m still more than a little suspicious. In the meantime, Facebook has remained adamant that they “do not use the phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in the News Feed,” as stated in a 2016 post from their website. Mark Zuckerberg, before the United States Congress in 2018 confirmed that Facebook only records audio when the user chooses to record a video on the app.

It’s no coincidence that when typing “Is my iPhone…” into google, the fourth highest result is “is my iPhone listening to me?” A 2017 New York Times article revealed that software company Alphonso develops Automated Content Recognition technology that is able to detect what television programs, movies, or advertisements a person is listening to, and is able to provide advertisements in alignment with these. In addition, this data can be used in combination with location services to narrow down what products or brands a user is exposed to even further. This software is integrated into a variety of popular apps from the Apple Store and Google Play, including mobile games aimed at children. In some cases, this software can run despite the app not being actively used, if a lack of privacy settings allows it. The Chief Executive of Alphonso disclosed that the company even makes deals with music-listening apps such as Shazam. To help detect hard to decode audio, they pay these companies to run the recordings through their own content recognition programs. As the Terms and Conditions cover the presence of the software as part of the app or game, no laws are broken. Let’s be honest though, when was the last time you read the entirety of the Terms and Conditions when downloading a seemingly innocent free mobile game or when updating an app?

Other popular devices that use similar content recognition programs are smart speakers and TVs. Reports from as early as 2015 raised concerns about Samsung Smart TVs constantly listening as a result of their new voice command feature in which voice detection was always active. Concern only grew after a 2017 WikiLeaks report detailed a program called “Weeping Angel” where the CIA and MI15 used Samsung Smart TVs to listen in on certain suspects by making the TVs appear off when they were actually on.

More recently, in 2018, there have been several reports of the Amazon Echo smart speakers glitching and recording. A Portland family’s story went viral after recordings of their private conversations were sent randomly to one of their contacts. This was closely followed by a German man who, upon requesting to view an archive of past recordings, was sent numerous audio files from a complete stranger’s device. These were explained by Amazon as the device mishearing a command and updates were pushed out to all Echo devices to help ensure that this wouldn’t happen again. For the average user, many of these devices are supposed to be “always listening,” though not actively recording, just listening out for the “wake word,” such as “Alexa” or “Hey Google.” With multiple cases within the last year all being excused as small glitches or human error it would perhaps be wise to err on the side of caution with privacy in regards to these devices.

While many of these examples are international reports, government surveillance may be closer to home than we might expect. In Australia, the Assistance and Access Bill, passed in December 2018, quickly became known as the anti-encryption bill. The Department of Home Affairs website states that this bill “ensures law enforcement and national security agencies are equipped with the tools necessary to keep the Australian community safe in the digital age.” While in theory this bill seems potentially useful for when law enforcement are attempting to track down a serious criminal, in reality, a number of privacy concerns are raised. In short, this bill means the government could ask technology companies to hand over any of the private data they’ve collected from their customers. It could even go as far as the government requesting modifications be made to certain devices in order to survey specific targets, such as purposefully having your phone microphone recording at all times. The bill has been criticised for being “ill-defined,” making it unclear whose privacy can be breached, potentially meaning someone who has not committed a crime could be under scrutinous surveillance. Despite talks of improvements to be made to the bill in February this year, no updates have been revealed. If anything, maybe we should think twice before jokingly meme-ing about government agents reading our texts…

So, what does this mean for the future of digital devices? Not much, apparently. Smartphone sales continue to rise each year and home assistant devices have similarly risen in popularity, with over 100 million Google Home ‘Alexa’ devices sold. Clearly, we have no plans to revert back to our Nokia mobiles anytime soon and destroy our computers Ron Swanson style. In the meantime, there are still some realistic steps you can take to improve your privacy. Always be sure to check your privacy settings on all your social media accounts and devices and simultaneously revise them regularly, especially when updating software. To be extra cautious, your best options would be to turn off voice command search options and limit the number of apps you allow to access your location, microphone, and camera on your smartphone. Additionally, turning off your smart speakers when not in current use could potentially prevent a stranger from hearing your private conversations.

With the current state of media surveillance, who can say what level of privacy we’ll have in the future with technology companies only growing more powerful. As one might say, this is so sad, “Alexa, play Despacito…”