You know you’re being spied on
Your smartphone is spying on you. There is no doubt about that and, thanks to Edward Snowden, who leaked official CIA papers 5 years ago, you are probably aware of the degree to which governments can access your digital information. Snowden caused us all to ask questions about our levels of personal privacy. The subject has been extensively covered by the media houses across the globe.
We shouldn’t really be surprised though. It was our choice to share sensitive information with a host of strangers on Facebook: who we are, where we live, where we travel and what do we even eat. What we didn’t realise was the number of inventive ways those seemingly innocuous pieces of information could be used to establish the inner workings of our minds, and to target us individually in a sea of people.
The years since Snowden have seen further progress in to the world of surveillance. At the heart of modern oversight techniques is the humble smartphone. They’re being used in ways you may not realise, even now. Here are some of the more ingenious ways that the sensors and constant connection to the internet your phone is provided.
Smartphones contain more sensors than you think
Smartphones have two complimentary characteristics which, when combined, turn them in to the ultimate spying device.
- First, they maintain a constant cellular data connection to the internet providing an ‘always on’ path for observers to silently monitor us.
- Second, they are simply loaded with sensors. Below is something you may never have seen before – a full run down of
‘Optic Nerve’ – A New NSA Smartphone Surveillance Project
If you are thinking that laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation which was implemented in Europe a few weeks ago, and is designed to ensure your safety from surveillance, will have you covered, I’m afraid you might not be correct.
The National Security Agency, the national-level intelligence agency of the United States was found to be spying on people. Reports suggest that they take a screenshot of people on Yahoo Messenger at regular intervals without their permission. The operation named ‘Optic Nerve’ ended up collecting a data where 3-11% of the images contained some kind of nudity.
Hackers can read your ATM PIN without special permission
We all know people who cover their phone’s camera with a piece of black tape and unplug their earphones when they are done using them so they can’t be used to listen in on conversations we’re having. Even the people who work for the FBI have admitted to employing both techniques to spy on people. However, the hacker organizations have been using tools and techniques which are way more sophisticated than that.
A study by Newcastle University found that the hackers can use your body movements (which influence the movements of your phone) to establish, over several attempts, what your bank PIN is when you use an ATM.
Importantly, hackers (‘played’ by researchers here) do not even need special permissions for their apps to access this kind of information. The investigation shows that each user holds their phone in a different manner when typing in a password, when scrolling through a webpage and when touching the screen of the ATM.
In the study (link above) researchers established access to four digit PIN codes with a whopping 70% accuracy, using the various motion and orientation sensors (there are usually around 10 in a modern smartphone, as the embedded image above shows) in your phone can help them keep a track of where you are sliding your fingers and compromise your password.
Careful what you say, too….
As technology progresses, tech companies come out with new innovations that are designed to ‘make our lives easier’. Google, Apple and Microsoft have all have their personal assistants out in the market for a while now. A growing number of people interact with their smartphones using their voices, in an attempt to introduce voice as a new and workable interface to the internet and to employ AI at scale to their customers.
Now these companies have made their smart assistants available in a plethora of ‘smart home’ devices that aim to build a connected ecosystem. It started with the Amazon Alexa smart speakers. Now virtually all these companies have smart speakers, smart alarm docks and even smart displays.
The noises these devices pick up, through your smartphone, are sent back to HQ and analysed. The content is filtered to determine what products you might like to buy and you’re then shows advertisements to match.
Facebook will scan your face to read your mood
Recently, Facebook filed a patent where it can use the front facing camera to see the expressions on your face and assess how the information on the screen is affecting your mood. If that doesn’t scream ‘creepy’ to you then we aren’t sure what will!
Recently, a former employee also accused Yahoo of monitoring the emails of hundreds of thousands of people on behalf of the NSA or the FBI. The company is now openly selling the data it has on its users to third parties, in contravention of the ways many other technology companies work.
Unfortunately, people choose to wilfully ignore the fact that their devices have been spying on them, and we might know why. There appears to be a difference between how people feel about their privacy in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world. Imagine, for example, the horror if someone found out that an unidentified person has been spying on them from behind their curtains? However, when you read the fact Facebook was doing that from your phone, you probably shrugged. People do not seem to care much when their mobile phone acts as a surveillance device for government agencies and other large organizations. The difference, perhaps, is that we know, when Facebook does it, that it is happening with everyone around them.
However, you do need to realize that no matter how insignificant you think your personal information is, these agencies can always put this data to good use. Whether it’s to make money from your propensity to buy something or for reasons of National Security you have many unique digital fingerprints which can be used to watch you.