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Is my smartphone spying on me?
Do you ever wonder how much information social media platforms have on you? Do you ever open an app on your phone to find an ad for an item you discussed recently? Do you feel like you are being followed online and wonder if your smartphone is listening to your conversations?
You are not alone.
Attorney General Dana Nessel knows the demand to socially distance ourselves during the pandemic has made social media our only real source of contact with loved ones and the outside world. People are utilizing Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, YouTube, and many other platforms that, in turn, put much of our personality traits and habits online for the world and technology to capture and use. We provide so much information about ourselves in our daily posts, online conversations, and behavior that we should not be surprised that our social media and devices know us better than we know ourselves.
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Is my smartphone listening?
There is conflicting information on this topic. According to Consumer Reports, it is technically possible that your smartphone is listening, but not practical. In one study, researchers used an automated test program to analyze over 17,000 popular apps and did not find a single app that activated a phone’s microphone and leaked audio data. Another study done by a mobile security company, which focused on high-profile apps known for large-scale –data collection including Amazon, Chrome, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, also found no evidence of secret recordings.
How do social platforms know so much about me?
App developers collect data on us, from names to credit card information. Many also track location by using your phone’s GPS capability and nearby cell towers.
Facebook monitors your browsing habits beyond its own platform by tracking what you watch, read and place in your shopping cart.
Companies like Google combine data from many of its free apps, which ultimately creates a user profile for ad targeting purposes. As a result, if you were to do a Google search for a particular kind of golf club, use Google Maps to drive to a golf store, and then use your Gmail account to sign up for that store’s mailing list—you can plan on seeing golf ads via your web browser and Facebook.
Can I stop my smartphone from tracking my activity?
Your phone continuously tracks your location, but you can limit access by not using the universal sign-on features offered by Google and Facebook and by not signing into the Chrome browser. Keep an eye on the permissions granted to your apps, too. While taking these steps may limit the information collected by your smartphone, they do not guarantee that your data or location is not being collected.
Google Assistant for Android Phones:
- You can control Google’s ability to track you through the Activities Control setting.
- Web & App Activity and Location History are the two major control settings. Everything you do on the web while signed into Chrome, everything you search for while signed into Google, and everything you do inside Google apps is tracked.
- To see the Target Ad profile that Google has built on you, head to Ad Personalization. Here you can view a host of topics that Google thinks you are interested in based upon tracking history.
Siri for Apple Devices:
- Apple uses Siri Smart Assistant to complete tasks and learn users’ habits. For those concerned about Siri’s random activities, you can simply turn off the ‘listen for Hey Siri’ feature without deactivating Siri completely.
- iPhone users must determine how useful Siri really is to them. Devices with Siri can be triggered accidentally simply by picking up the device or if it hears another voice say ‘Hey Siri’.
- Facebook tracks you on its platform. It reaches out across other websites, services, and apps—including the places you physically visit. Using the “check-in” feature on Facebook is another opportunity for the platform to track where you go. If you want to take advantage of Facebook’s features, you must be willing to give up a certain amount of information about yourself. You can limit the volume of data Facebook logs by viewing The Complete Guidebook to Facebook Privacy.
- Facebook requires you give permission to log your activity on the site and that data is used to provide advertising most relevant to you. You cannot stop Facebook from collecting this information – it’s the deal you make when you sign up. However, you can limit how it affects the advertising you see by visiting the Ad Preference page in your account on the web.
- Facebook also owns WhatsApp and Instagram and pools the data they collect. Visit the user-friendly version of Facebook’s Data Policy and Handling.
Monitoring can be beneficial.
Attorney General Nessel notes that some monitoring is beneficial right now due to COVID-19.
During the pandemic, contact tracing helps protect you, your family, and your community. Contact tracing tracks down anyone who might have been infected by a person who was recently diagnosed so those contacts can quarantine themselves and prevent further spread of the virus.
There are apps you can download on your cell phone if you agree to participate in contact tracing for COVID-19. If you agree, these apps may monitor the following: (1) your health; (2) who you have been around; and (3) where you spent time while you may have been able to spread COVID-19 to others.
You may have already received an alert on your smartphone asking to turn on ‘Exposure Notifications. This collaboration between Apple and Google technology allows detection of phones that come close to one another and can notify people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. This technology does NOT ask users for personal health information or track locations.
Being monitored is not always bad. In this case, it is a useful tool to keep yourself and others safe and healthy.
For more information on Consumer Protection issues, head to the Michigan Attorney General Consumer Protection website.
If you have a general consumer complaint, you may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Toll free: 877-765-8388
Online complaint form