How to tell if your smartphone is spying on you

Virtual private network service provider NordVPN has published a new study showing a 5% increase in the installation of monitoring apps over the last year.

The group said that these monitoring tools typically allow for targeted marketing, as they use data collected by digital assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa.

NordVPN said that these assistants ‘listen in’ to their user all the time so that they can hear any potential voice commands and assist. However, some of the things people say are being recorded for companies’ own benefits, like improving the service quality or for marketing purposes, it said.

“When you ask Google Assistant or Siri to find something, this information is used for online advertising. It’s no different from typing something into Google Search,” said Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN.

“If you’re looking for car dealerships in your city, related ads will start chasing you across the internet. In a way, a virtual assistant is just another search engine.”

How to test your phone

NordVPN said the best way to see if your phone is helping marketers target you is by effectively setting up a ‘trap’ and deliberately focusing on a topic you are not typically interested in.

It outlined the process as follows:

  • Select a good topic. It should be something that couldn’t be associated with your personality, something you never talk about;
  • Isolate the topic from your phone. Do not use your phone or any other device to search for information on this topic. The best way to do so is to think of it in your head. Make sure you have never googled this topic either;
  • Select keywords. Think of a list of keywords that could trigger search engines;
  • Discuss the topic out loud next to your phone. You can do this alone or with someone else for several minutes at a time. Do so a few days in a row. Make sure you don’t search for the topic in any other way — your phone’s only contact with it should be hearing you talk about it.

“Once you set up the trap, notice if any new advertisements have started targeting you on social media or other digital channels. If they have, then your phone is probably helping these ads reach you,” NordVPN said.

When users use a virtual assistant, they agree to the terms and conditions of the service provider. Since they have given their consent, it’s legal to track the conversations with Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, and others for marketing purposes.

“It only becomes illegal if an app is spying on you without your consent. That’s why it’s essential to review the permissions you’re giving specific services and learn about the ways your phone is tracking you,” NordVPN said.

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How to tell if your smartphone is spying on you