Be Wary of Apps That Secretly Listen to You

We are living in an age where technology is crucial in our everyday lives, but have you ever thought of technology that we possess can be used to secretly invade our privacy? Nowadays, there are plenty of privacy-invading marketing approach that collects data from users. Some are in your face, and some are more subtle. Companies would offer “always on” device function that listens to our voice commands 24/7, and marketers would follow us around the web to create personalized profiles so they are able to show us ads we might actually click into.

With advancement in technology, the recent kind of privacy-invading approach manages to be outright invisible. For this new approach, apps have increasingly incorporated ultrasonic signals to track consumers. This technology is called ultrasonic cross-device tracking. It utilizes high frequency signals you can’t detect but your phone can. How despicable huh? This technology is able to track whether you are browsing web pages, advertisements or even physical locations like retail stores.

If you are not paying attention to the permissions you authorize for your apps, you could have been very well feeding marketers information without even realizing it. Tactically and eerily enough, it can be used to collect your browsing behavior, stores you go to, and your preference for a particular product. There are however legitimate ways of using this technology, such as companies incorporating it in their reward program that automatically offers customers promotions when they visit their physical stores. But many of the apps deploy it without a clear use for their user or at least benefit the user who downloads them.

All it takes is granting microphone permissions. Ultrasonic tracking can take place since it relies only on basic speaker and microphones. Moreover, since microphones can hear “signals”  even without Wi-Fi or mobile data connection, you can still be tracked even when you have disconnected your phone from the internet. These apps could have been listening for signals all the time, thus leading to higher risk of incidental data collection. Companies that develop or use this technology claim that they don’t store any records of audible sound, only for listening particular high frequency pitches. But with “always on” sensing function, eventually it opens up the door of misuse.

It is absolutely uncomfortable to be tracked all the time and the thought of it can be intimidating as well. Since you can’t stop these “signals” revolving in our lives, the best solution is to reduce the chance that your phone can listen to them and provide data to third party. Fortunately, it’s easy to stay in control if you are aware of all these elusive traps. Simply have a check through on the permissions that you have granted your apps that make sense. For example, Whatsapp will undoubtedly require microphone access, but for a clothing store apps? Maybe not.

On a side note, researchers have developed a “signal-blocking” Chrome extension and Android patch in an attempt to give users some defense tools. But even with these countermeasures, it is important to know ultrasonic tracking is not completely out of the picture. Pay close attention to permissions apps ask you for and you can hence figure out a lot about what’s happening behind the scenes.

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