The Mail on Sunday recently ran a story that might be very surprising to a lot of people. In it Claudia Joseph says that it was recently, after having dinner with a friend in London’s Canary Wharf that she first became suspicious.
Is Somebody Listening?
She and her friend had settled into their seats and arranged their belongings with Claudia’s iPhone placed in front of her on the table, as usual. She noticed that her companion was struggling to read the menu without glasses.
‘I thought you’d had laser eye surgery?’ she sad. ‘Yes,’ her friend replied. ‘But it only works for long distance.’
It was a mundane conversation between friends, just like any other that takes place at countless dinner tables across Britain – but one which, in fact, turned into something altogether more unsettling.
Within hours, Claudia used her mobile to scroll through my Facebook account and, with growing unease, noticed adverts for LASIK laser eye surgery and a selection of spectacles from Lady Boss glasses appearing alongside the usual updates from friends. Claudia does not even wear glasses! Surely, she thought, it must be a coincidence? And yet the timing felt troubling.
Could it be possible that our phones are somehow eavesdropping on our conversations, she wondered and that key phrases are being logged and used to send us targeted adverts? The implications, if true, are chilling.
I never go anywhere without my phone
Claudia points out that we are obsessed with our phones. They accompany us to our most personal spaces – our homes, our bedrooms and bathrooms – are privy to our most intimate of conversations and are used for all aspects of our business, personal and financial lives. But what she discovered over several days of investigation reveals what can only be described as a frightening new chapter in our relationship with these devices.
To Claudia, there is no doubt: the microphones on our phones are indeed listening to our everyday lives. We do not even have to be using our phones to make a call for them to eavesdrop. Unless the microphone is disabled, they appear to be able to pick up words and phrases and translate them into related adverts that then appear in apps such as Instagram and Facebook.
If Claudia Joseph hadn’t observed this insidious behaviour for herself, she says that she wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, completely denies using microphones to eavesdrop on conversations, or to tailor adverts. They insist they only show adverts based on user’s interests and information they voluntarily upload. How then can they explain what Claudia uncovered in this investigation?
Claudia carried her iPhone with her at all times over the course of a week. It was always switched on and close enough to her for it to be able to ‘hear’ any conversations.
One day, Claudia visited her GP for an NHS check-up, and was booked for a blood test. By the time she was back with the nurse to take her blood, Claudia had received an offer on Facebook from private firm Thriva offering her a ‘blood test today’.
From there, Claudia met a friend for lunch. She’s decided to purposely discuss obscure subjects so that her previous Internet search history wouldn’t interfere with any new ads.
The friend told her about his love of photography. He was going to Heathrow to photograph a British Airways Boeing 757 landing and Claudia discussed buying camera lenses with him.
Facebook and Instagram on the case.
This time, Claudia got ads on both Facebook and Instagram accounts from airlines AND photography companies. Claudia hadn’t searched for either online. One ad told her ‘You don’t need to be tech savvy to edit photos’, and even showed a picture of an aeroplane.
Finally, Claudia showed a friend a book of prints by a 19th Century artist called Aubrey Beardsley, which her father had discovered in a library that burnt down during the Second World War. She had two of his prints on her wall.
Despite never Googling the artist, you can probably guess what happened next. An advert appeared on her Instagram for the Victoria and Albert Museum with a similar image they have in their collection.
To be absolutely certain her phone was eavesdropping, Claudia left it next to the radio and tuned into Italian news network Radio 24. Bingo! The following day, Claudia’s Instagram was full of dozens of Italian adverts, including one for an exhibition, another for a singer’s new album and various Italian holiday offers.
Claudia has discovered that the best way to counter this kind of eavesdropping is according to experts, is to delete social-media apps from your phone. If you have an iPhone, you will also need to turn off the Siri application, which uses voice-activated software.
To do so, go into your Settings, scroll down to ‘Siri and Search’ and switch off the tab that says ‘Allow Siri when locked’. If you want to keep your social-media apps, you can visit each one in Settings and switch off the ‘Microphone’ tab. Alternatively, if you have an Android phone, navigate to Settings and disable or turn off the microphone, and also disable ‘Okay Google’, which allows the phone to react to voice commands.
I spy a photo
But that wasn’t the full extent of Claudia’s phone’s espionage. It was also, she discovered, spying on her pictures.
A friend sent Claudia a picture on WhatsApp of a £1,190 Chloe Nile leather cross-body bag that she had seen in Selfridges. Claudia had never Googled or looked up the bag herself. It was too expensive for her, so she replied: ‘I wonder if we could find a replica?’
Days later, a similar bag popped up in an advert on her phone, priced at a far more realistic £39.99. Surely not another coincidence?
WhatsApp would say so. They insist your messages are so encrypted that even they can’t tell you what you’ve been sending. A little research threw up a similar case of an American woman called Jen Lewis, who in 2017 posted a picture of herself on Twitter wearing a pink shirt and blue jeans. She was subsequently targeted on Facebook by a lingerie company, which sent her an ad of a model wearing an almost identical outfit. She wrote in a post to her page: ‘Uh, Facebook just served me a bra ad where a woman is wearing the outfit that I’m currently wearing.’
It went viral, with 21,400 ‘likes’ from people around the world. Facebook insisted it was coincidence, but thousands of people were unconvinced, suggesting that the woman’s phone or laptop camera was targeted with image-recognition software.
Of course, the questionable habits of social-media giants in harvesting our personal data is nothing new.
Following a trend
Most people will already know that, when they use a search engine or visit certain websites, they can expect to be targeted by related adverts in their Internet browser. But the idea that our conversations, and photographs are being collected is a different prospect entirely.
Claudia got in touch with Dr Vitor Jesus, senior lecturer in cyber-security and privacy at Birmingham University. ‘I’m not surprised by the sequence of events you experienced,’ he told her. ‘Every time you download an app and give it permission to access personal information, whether it be photographs, contacts or microphone, you open yourself to being targeted. The companies tell us they do this, but the information is buried in long agreements and policies that most of us don’t bother to read. So I say, buyer beware! There is no such thing as a free app. And at the moment, because users are technically giving permission, it is not illegal.’ This ‘permission’ is tacitly given because the microphones on most people’s phones are always left on. The phones are pre-programmed to listen for ‘trigger’ phrases that activate personal assistant apps such as Siri or Alexa. This means that many other apps could be using the same technology without the phone owner’s knowledge. Dr Jesus also said: ‘it is entirely possible to have multiple apps listening in the background all the time, with each being triggered by keywords. ‘Your details are then passed on to the relevant companies who will bombard you with adverts.’
The precise way this works is still something of a mystery – even to experts – because it depends on which app is listening in. But it is thought that app developers create a list of keywords relating to its advertisers or their products. The microphone sends conversations through transcription software that instantly turns it from speech to text. If key words or phrases are present, the app triggers adverts to be sent to users.
At Wilson’s Detectives we believe that companies such as Instagram, WhatsApp and
Facebook, have developed algorithms that will allow them to ensure that this process is effective. We would certainly advise that people think more carefully about what they download on to their phones and devices and keep in mind that nothing comes for free. There are just differing ways of extracting payment.’
At Wilsons Detectives, we are always working to help people who feel they are being spied on or monitored by any means. If you feel that someone is accessing your private data, give us a call.
Anthony Bryan joined MI5 in the early 70s and operated in the UK, Ireland, and the Middle East, before being seconded to MI6 to work with the CIA in the USA during the War on Drugs. He now lives between homes in London, Paris and Manila and runs a successful Private Detective & Corporate Intelligence Agency, Anthony Bryan Corporate Intelligence and Investigations..