Reality or paranoia: Have our cell phones become spies?

3 min
Tags: Phone SpyPhone Spy Micro-sensors smartphone collecting data Apps Manipulation user behavior Tapping data

When is the next bus? Which restaurant has the best pizza? Do I need an umbrella when I leave the house? The smartphone's voice assistant knows the answers. Cell phones are indispensable everyday companions for most people.

But what appears to be a useful helper also has a dark side. Smartphones are tirelessly collecting data and information, linking them together and putting them together to form an overall picture, like in a puzzle game.

Micro-sensors: Eyes, ears and sense of touch of smartphones

Just how complex smartphones of the latest generation are is shown by the fact that around 20 micro sensors are installed in the everyday companions. Every user knows the touchscreen as the largest sensor. There are also sensors such as a barometer, a hall sensor, ambient light sensors, fingerprint sensors and a gyroscope. The latter is used to determine the location in the room. Automatic switching to portrait or landscape mode would not be possible without this sensor.

How much data the users of a smartphone voluntarily disclose becomes clear when you look at how the integrated cameras work, which access powerful facial recognition software. According to the manufacturer, users benefit from a relief because the phone can be unlocked contactlessly this way. However, they do not learn that a three-dimensional representation of the face is created and stored at the same time. Nor do they know whether this data is collected and evaluated centrally.

Apps: The gateway for spies

The main gateway for spies is apps. Hardly any user bothers to deactivate the camera, location, microphone and image access function after each installation of a new app. The operators are rubbing their hands, because this makes it child's play to grab data and create behavior and movement profiles with the help of an algorithm.

A real life example: A family man gets into the car in the morning and the cell phone navigation device almost certainly knows that the trip is to the workplace. The navigation system also knows when the expected time of arrival is, what delays to expect and which route is suitable to avoid a traffic jam. Very few users worry about the amount of personal data required to initiate such processes.

Manipulation of user behavior

While the operators of some apps explicitly emphasize that no data is transferred to companies such as Apple or Google, with many commercial apps this is a different story. Here the permission for data processing must be deactivated in the terms of use, which are rarely read anyway. Hardly anyone does this.

The example of the mobile game "Pokémon Go" shows where this recklessness can lead. Numerous hiding places of the little monsters were by no means chosen randomly, but were advertisements that were not even elaborately camouflaged. What followed was a classic manipulation of user behavior, because the players were actively steered and, without even realizing it, influenced in their behavior.

The goal of espionage: Tapping data

Data is the currency of the 21st century. It is used to target advertising and to influence the behavior of users in one way or another. The cell phone plays a central role in this context. It detects the pulse, speech speed and pressure we apply when touching the touch screen. The cell phone knows what we are looking for online, which sneakers we ordered, when the people from our contact list have their birthday and when the alarm clock rings in the morning. With the help of these data packages, complete user profiles can be created.

Last but not least: The voice assistants

High-tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have often claimed in the past that users are not tapped when the virtual assistant is in standby mode. However, since voice input is permanently turned on, unless the function has been disabled, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Co. are theoretically constantly on eavesdropping posts. What remains is a queasy feeling at the idea that intimate secrets may complete the user profile created by a supercomputer.