Are our phones listening to us?

Are our phones listening to us? It’s a concern that I hear about in casual conversation more and more frequently. I’ve also been seeing a lot more tape on laptop webcams. Why is everyone being so paranoid all of a sudden?

Get out your tin foil hats, because we are all under surveillance. As it turns out, if you are doing anything on a smart device or online, you are probably being watched. Not physically (although maybe), but every imaginable metric about your online activity is being recorded. The immediate response to hearing something like that, is most likely one of feeling violated which might make you feel angry. Questions begin to arise. Why are companies gathering all this information on me? What do these companies want with me? Let’s dive deeper into these questions.

The rise of the Data Economy

You may have heard the phrase “data is the new oil”. Data has become one of the most valuable assets of our times and is the reason why tech companies have found such tremendous success in recent times. It is also why all of your online activity metrics are being recorded.

Another passing, casual, saying that I hear is that Facebook is collecting all my data and information. Well how are they collecting all of my information? Every click, every like, every post, every page you follow, the sum of your connections (friends), time spent watching certain videos, EVERYTHING is being measured and recorded. And it isn’t just Facebook. As I previously stated, it’s just about every website and application that you use on a daily basis and many of these data collectors are working collaboratively to use your data.

Enter Data Science

Okay, so all of this data is being gathered but it isn’t quite so useful yet. Raw data is much like crude oil in that it needs processing to be ultimately useful. How then is it being used? That’s where Data Science comes in. Companies hire people trained in the manipulation of data to come in and build complex algorithms (artificial intelligence) to use your data in complicated ways to draw insights about you and your online behaviors. One of the most common algorithms that is employed is the recommender system, which makes personalized recommendations based on your information. The personalized recommendations come in a few different flavors: YouTube related videos or suggestions, Spotify suggesting new tunes, Amazon’s “people who buy this also buy this” and every ad and video that pops up in your Facebook feed… you get the gist.

The recommender systems uses your data in the following ways:

User Behavior Data: Recommendations are made to you by using what you have clicked, time spent on a webpage, your rating habits, and your purchase history, etc.

User Demographic Data: Recommendations are made to you by using your personal information such as your age, location, education, income, etc.

Product Attribute Data: Recommendations are made to you by relating the product you are using to other similar products. An example of this would be recommending you horror movies, because you have watched a horror movie.

The Good

Okay, so as it turns out, despite the initial feelings of violation, there might be some good in all of this. Steve Jobs once said “a computer is the most incredible tool we’ve ever seen” and it remains true about the wealth of data that is being collected. Our data provides us with useful functions and insights:

  • Recommender systems can lead to finding new products, entertainment or information that you may never have caught or may have forgotten about otherwise.
  • Recommender systems can help you meet old and new friends or join new groups on social media.
  • Recommender systems also help autofill words and web searches so you can type and search more easily.
  • Our data can be used to improve the services that we enjoy using on a day-to-day basis.
  • There is an overabundance of information available from our data that can lead to new and interesting discoveries and insights about our behaviors and interests.

Overall, online data collection is not inherently bad and provides us with a wealth of information about ourselves that we could not have so easily gotten in the past. Recommender systems also improve the ease with which we navigate and search the web.

And some more good news is that our phones are likely not listening to us according to BBC News: Why phones that secretly listen to us are a myth (https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-49585682).

Let me be clear, though, that although your phone may not be listening to what you are saying, many of your phone utilization metrics are being tracked (such as location and time, search engine searches, applications that are connecting to nearby networks and tracking how you use the apps…).

The Bad

An unfortunate reality of our society is that everything must be monetized and the internet is no exception. One of the the best ways to monetize the internet has been through the use of advertisements. It’s through these advertisements that the companies harvesting your data have found such colossal economic success.

On top of recommending products to you, companies can also use these systems to target you with advertising. Each ad you are exposed to and the longer you spend looking at the ad is generating revenue for the companies hosting the ads. Companies will, therefore, place ads in ways that you are forced to view them so that they can generate some profit from your platform visit. The best way to increase your exposure to these ads, and therefore generate revenue, is to have you spend more time on the platforms hosting the advertisements. To do this, the companies hosting the platforms employ manipulative psychological tricks to keep you on the platform as long as possible and to make sure you will come back as much as possible. Social media is the most notorious industry for this behavior but be advised that even your Gmail is culpable to some degree. Companies that harvest your information will also sell it to other companies who can then target you with ads. The consequences associated with the negative aspects of recommender systems is such a broad topic that it warrants it’s own post entirely.

You get very little say on whether or not your data can be collected and then you have no voice in how your data is being used. Companies can sometimes use your information in nefarious ways that could affect you negatively.

Closing Remarks

It appears there is good reason for the growing paranoia surrounding the use of technology around us. Our data is being collected for both reasons that could be seen as positive and negative. Whether we like it or not, our online behavior is oftentimes being collected and the only surefire way we can opt-out of is by avoiding the technology that has become so integral and familiar to our every day lives.

Be mindful of what you share online.

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Data Scientist | Health Enthusiast | Learner

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John Kundycki

John Kundycki

Data Scientist | Health Enthusiast | Learner

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