(NewsNation) – Is your phone listening to you?
It’s no secret that tech companies are tracking user data to better improve targeting strategies, with reports the Department of Homeland Security has spent millions buying cell phone location information from companies. But what companies and the government are pursuing and how is still unclear.
For NewsNation’s Surveillance State special series, NewsNation investigated how tech companies collect data from phones and other devices, and whether phones actually eavesdrop on conversations.
Serge Egelman, privacy researcher and director of the University of California, Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, said the technology doesn’t necessarily listen to its users.
“It is and it isn’t,” Egelman said. “It’s one of those conspiracy theories that refuses to die. In terms of your phone recording your conversations 24/7, that’s absolutely not a thing.”
He said phones, laptops and tablets are used to collect data but don’t necessarily listen to everything people say.
Technology users see content based on an educated guess through data tracking. Companies use this data for their own marketing purposes – and sometimes worse, to sell this information for profit.
“Collecting a lot of information about what you do online, what websites you visit, what you do on your mobile device and what you watch on TV. All of these devices share data about what you’re doing in your life,” Egelman said.
Egelman shared some safeguards that users can employ to protect their privacy:
- Under iPhone Settings -> Privacy -> Tracking -> Uncheck “Allow apps to track”
- This action prevents phone apps from collecting and sharing information about users with other websites and apps.
- Under iPhone Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services -> System Services -> Important Locations (turn off)
- Places of Interest allows apps to see the records of where you’ve been. Disable this action to better protect your privacy.
- Under Android Settings -> Location
- Users can turn off their location by clicking Use location off, or restrict permissions by tapping App location permissions.
“Most people don’t anticipate that an app that isn’t location-related might be collecting location data when you’re not using it,” Egelman said.
Egelman said the industry is largely unregulated — an issue he addressed before Congress back in May. But he said the best way to stop data leaks and sharing is for the companies to act or for the law to intervene.
The information companies share from your devices can be used in all sorts of ways aside from just getting you targeted ads in an Instagram feed. Businesses can look up the data when conducting background checks on new hires. This data may also determine your creditworthiness or prevent users from being accepted into a college.
Egelman said it shouldn’t be up to people to find ways to protect their privacy, it should be up to the companies who use it for their own interests.
This is part of an exclusive series from NewsNation exploring increased surveillance and data collection by technology and by government.