Privacy is an integral part of the Internet. It’s only natural, even when you have absolutely nothing in your browsing history to hide, to want it to remain private. After all, it’s nobody else’s business. That’s why the recent data breach in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal was a major turning point in the history of the Internet. Advertisers have been using our metadata for years in order to better serve us free content. However, it’s the first case (on such a gigantic scale) where people’s data was also misused.
It’s not just our browsing, conspiracy theorists have long since suggested we’re being spied on in our homes, by devices we use every day. Google is obviously the most-suggested perpetrator here, with people claiming everything from ‘Google is tracking your movements 24 X 7’, to ‘Google is listening to you through your phones’. Then again, that last bit isn’t necessarily just a crazy conspiracy theory.
Take for instance a little program called ‘Alphonso’. It’s a piece of software from a startup of the same name. The weird part though, is that Alphonso is found in a lot of innocuous games on both Google Play and App Store. Games like ‘Pool 3D’, ‘Beer Pong: Trickshot’, and ‘Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin’, all aimed at small kids. The thing is, Alphonso has nothing to do with the actual functioning of the apps.
Instead, it listens for audio on television shows playing nearby. It captures this audio and breaks it down into data that advertisers can use to reach TV audiences. Say, for instance, your kid is using your smartphone today to play one of these games, even as their favorite cartoon plays on TV. Tomorrow, if Alphonso has gathered that most kids in that age group watch that show, toy manufacturers will be using that data to advertise directly to your children. That is what the software is for.
The problem is, in a report published in December last year, The New York Times found over 250 apps on both Android and iOS that contain the Alphonso code. The apps don’t need to be running either, they can record even when in the background or in your pocket. All it needed was the microphone permission you gave it (or your kid did) when you downloaded the app. Even worse, this data is tied into the IP address of your home WiFi, which can be matched with other details for an advertiser to learn about how many people are in your family, or how financially well-off you are, what email services you use, your buying habits, and so much more.
So the question a lot of people are forced to ask now is, if it’s so easy to spy in on the audio of a smartphone user’s daily life, who’s to say more tech companies aren’t doing it already? After all, it’s rarely the sort of thing you hear about until it’s already a scandal because it’s revealed the company was doing it all along. After all, if you really want to download a particular app, can you honestly say you think twice before granting it strange permissions it shouldn’t need?