Are Google and Facebook Really Spying on You?

Staff Writer / 13-09-2019 / Tech Tips Data

Privacy has become a major concern in the always-connected age of smart devices and ever-present social networks like Facebook and tech giants like Google.

Most people do not want devices listening to their conversations, storing them, or worse, sending these private conversations back to social networks and developers through their apps. But this seems to be exactly what’s happening! So, are social networks like Facebook and search giants like Google really spying on you through their apps? The quick and easy answer to that is, “yes, they are”, but probably not in the way you think.

There’s been many reported occasions where users have had private conversations and then had adverts relating to that specific topic turn up on Facebook or even on search engines like Google. Dutch publication VRT NWS reported that Google hires independent contractors from around the world to listen to and transcribe audio recordings from Google Assistant in order to improve the technology. Amazon has also been shown to practice this with its Alexa smart assistant.

Your smartphone ‘listens’ for trigger words such as ‘Hey Google’ in order to record what you’re saying, decipher it and deliver accurate results. Without the triggers, your voice recordings are just stored on the device for a certain amount of time before being overwritten; however, the concern is that these recordings may not be out of the reach of third-party apps like Facebook or WhatsApp who use this data to target you with customised, highly specific ads.

Jason Nurse, Assistant Professor in Cyber Security at the University of Kent explains this idea further, saying, “Imagine you have just started to think about where to go for your next holiday. You spend the morning visiting travel agents to discuss the latest deals and then visit your favourite restaurant, a popular Caribbean food chain in the city. Excited about your potential trip, later that night you watch mostly TV shows on the tropics. The next day, your social media feed contains flight, hotel and tour ads with deals to Barbados. Essentially, this is how data is gathered from your smart devices and then advertisers grab the opportunity to target you.”

Surely by now you’re asking, ‘Is all this legal?’ It absolutely is. Remember those terms and conditions you accepted without reading? This is where you’re agreeing to let companies share your data with third parties. Even with new laws that try to protect people’s information, tech firms are constantly looking to push the boundaries of data gathering and algorithm design in ways that can feel invasive.

There is a way to control what Google hears. Since it’s reliant on voice-activation when it hears the phrase ‘Hey Google’, disabling its access to your microphone would put a stop to the app listening and recording your voice. Tech website komando.com states that Google introduced a new My Account tool that lets you access your recordings and delete them if you want. You can also ask Google to permanently stop recording your voice.

Here’s how to turn off the "OK Google" wake phrase: On Android, just go to Settings >> Google >> Search >> Voice and turn “OK Google” detection off.

There is also a way to disable Facebook's access to your microphone. For Android users, go to Settings >> Applications >>Application Manager >> Facebook >> Permissions >> and then turn off the mic. Disabling this will affect how you use the app itself as some of its features will not be available, such as Live Video.

To be fair, these tech firms listen to your conversations to train their AI to be better at understanding you and delivering accurate results. It also streamlines their advertising campaigns to deliver online ads that are relevant to you. The problem is that they haven’t been entirely honest or forthcoming about how these technologies work, which has understandably angered a lot of people. However, if targeted ads and an accurate AI are not important to you, a simple fix is to just shut off these services as described above, or you could just watch what you say in the vicinity of your smartphone!

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