Electronic Product Design

Tuesday, 07 June 2016 00:00 Written by 

Are You Listening, Facebook?

07-06-16 smartphone listening in 200pxInternet privacy is a debate that just doesn’t stop. Rightly so, as the vast majority of the world is now directly involved in it. Social media is often directly involved in the debate. Our willingness to upload and share our personal information has curated the perfect storm for government entities to track us, monitor us, and run surveillance programs.

Facebook is the most popular social network of all, spanning the globe with well over 1.5bn users. Its vast size sees the social network regularly court controversy: news suppression, allegations of fraud, tax avoidance, and manipulation of users' “time-lines” come to mind. However, recent reports have exposed serious issues with the permissions granted to the Facebook mobile application, and how the company sees fit to use those permissions.

More Than You Bargain For

The Facebook app asks for permission to access your microphone, quite innocuously. This means the app can use the microphone for recording voices, making calls through the Facebook Messaging service, and so on. But some users noted strange activity corresponding to events they talked about with their friends, face to face, suddenly appearing in advertisements or posts on the social media site.

A couple of months back, a Facebook user took their concerns to news aggregator site, Reddit, in a post which swiftly went viral. Facebook quickly responded that they were indeed listening to their user’s surroundings to identify “things you’re listening to or watching,” but only when the user is writing a status update. It seems to go further than this though. A number of users then reported strange correlations between items being talked about and extremely well directed adverts appearing, seemingly instantaneously. Here is an example:

“My SO and I were having a chat and I was telling her about a new Nespresso shop that opened up in the city and how nicely designed it was. I don’t like coffee that much, and I’ve never even tried Nespresso. That is the only time I can remember having a conversation about Nespresso to anyone and I’ve certainly never Googled it or anything.

The next day, all my ads on chrome were about Nespresso. I have no issues with ads popping up related to things I’ve searched by voice or type. But it did feel a bit invasive being constantly listened to and for private conversations to be used as a means to target ads at me.”

Easy Access

To test the theory further, security researcher Ken Munro, and David Lodge of Pen Test Partners, built a proof-of-concept app. As Munro explained to the BBC:

“All we did was use the existing functionality of Google Android – we chose it because it was a little easier for us to develop in.”

“We gave ourselves permission to use the microphone on the phone, set up a listening server on the internet, and everything that microphone heard on that phone, wherever it was in the world, came to us and we could then have sent back customized ads.”

While it is difficult to track just which apps are listening in, it would certainly appear that Facebook is extending the use of the microphone to capture much more than simple sounds from the local vicinity. Those with an already uneasy feeling toward social media will feel justified in their concern. Those without a care should likely consider the permissions granted to apps on their device, consider exactly who might be listening to their conversations, and exactly how that information is being used.


Image courtesy of atibodyphoto / freedigitalphotos.net.

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