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You’re Talking, but Who is Listening?

We have all experienced it. You’re at lunch with one of your friends, and they mention the sweet new car they want to buy. The conversation soon turns to the fancy SUV you really want, but now the food is here, so the topic changes. Later that evening, you’re checking Facebook, and it is plastered with ads for the SUV you mentioned. This is not the first time you’ve noticed something like this happen. There must be something to this. You wonder, is my phone listening to me?

I’m here to tell you that the phone probably isn’t listening… but the apps on it totally are. Although many of the popular apps and games that you can download from the app store are free, they may come with a cost you would not expect. These too good to be true apps may come with software installed that can surveil the user to more effectively advertise to them.

Companies that produce the applications which use these kinds of software do not advertise this outright. Apps will usually ask to access your phone’s microphone, camera, or pictures under the pretense that they are being utilized in the functionality of the app. Often the actual reason this is deep inside the ‘terms and conditions.’ Let’s be real, only a small percentage of the population has the time to read those. It almost seems as if companies make the terms and conditions extraordinarily long and complicated to understand on purpose.

One software that is used to surveil users to better tailor ads is called Alphonso Automated Content Recognition (ACR).  According to Alphonso’s website, the purpose of the ACR software is to capture short audio clips from the user’s device and compare these clips to commercial content (tv and movie clips). When there is a match, Alphonso uses this data to display more tailored ads to the user. Sapna Maheshwari at the New York Times states that Alphonso is alleged to be included in at least 1,000 available apps.

However, there is hope! There are easy ways to opt-out of this spying. One option is to do research into the app that you are downloading and limit the access that the app gets. Don’t allow apps to access the microphone without vetting. Sometimes apps even come with a setting that will disable targeted advertising. Another option is only to surf the web using a browser that does not collect personal information and search history. One such browser is DuckDuckGo. If you take the right steps, you can take your privacy back!

Stay safe out there!