Is your cell phone spying on you?

Who hasn’t felt like being eavesdropped or even spied on by a cell phone when they send us hyper-targeted ads without doing any research on the product in question? Would we listen? “Today, there is no material evidence of the existence of such practices. Several tests have been carried out, but the results are not very convincing: no study has revealed that phones’ microphones have been systematically used for advertising without the owner’s knowledge; These are complicated things to demonstrate.”

“If we had to listen to everyone 24 hours a day, it would still be difficult from an engineering point of view. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” explains Félicien Vallet, AI manager at Cnil (National Commission for Computing and Liberties). Not to mention that the legal risks for digital giants who breach the confidentiality of communications and privacy will be enormous. But how do these super-targeted ads reach users? four explanations, according to an expert.

Voice assistants

The role of voice assistants is to listen to us (if the user has allowed it) to trigger the pronunciation of the activation keyword: “OK Google” (for Google Assistant), “Alexa” (for Amazon Assistant). ) and “Hey Siri” (for Apple). The problem is with “false positives”: words that sound like “OK,” “Alexa,” or “Hey Siri.” Then the helper starts without us wanting to, and sometimes without even realizing it.

It is recommended to regularly refer to the history of interactions with his voice assistant to be aware of unwanted listening.

What happens to conversations that are recorded without our knowledge? Félicien Vallet explains: “In the case of incorrect receptions, Google Assistant can use this data to combine your profile and manage ad targeting, many voice assistant services are supported by advertising logic. Therefore, the user is advised to regularly consult the history of interactions with the voice assistant to be aware of any unwanted listening.


Some apps connect to the microphone, address book, camera, etc. in some cases with transmission to third parties without users’ knowledge. “Seeker Matthew Cunche (INSA-Lyon/Inria) also points out that the world of mobile apps is a bit like the “Wild West” and “it is possible that malicious or profit-seeking companies absorb our data to then profile us and target their targets. offers,” says Félicien Vallet. So beware of apps and their trackers!

Dating network

Another explanation for the display of specially targeted advertising is that, according to an expert from Cnil, “we thrive on the dating network.” “We all evolve in different networks (family, friends, professional, etc.) and the connections between individuals are themselves a source of information. You may never have mentioned your desire to travel to Chile online, but your best friend may have explored Chile… Location data can be extremely useful in characterizing an individual’s profile by identifying residents of the same family. company etc. »

The footprints we leave…

Through our purchases, navigations (using cookies and other trackers), we scatter many small pebbles… And the main players of online advertising rely on the collection of a lot of data, which is the user’s interests and habits. After that, they only need to send them relevant ads. In addition, these large companies offer their users many services where the extracted data is then linked together. Thus, Google mobilizes data from Gmail, YouTube, Drive, Maps, etc.

How should you protect yourself?

Therefore, if there is no systematic collection of audio conversations, there are many other means of collecting information about individuals in order to offer them specially targeted ads. Félicien Vallet encourages users to protect their privacy as much as possible by “disabling unnecessary collection settings (geolocation permission, cookie storage, etc.).” The expert also recommends “removing apps you don’t use and, above all, downloading only trusted apps.”

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