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6 June 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 1:28pm

Facebook isn’t listening through your phone, but others could be

It's relatively easy to hack into a phone's microphone and listen remotely - just ask the UK government. 

By Barbara Speed

In October 2015, Edward Snowden told Panorama that GCHQ was hacking our phones using smurfs. These “smurfs”, he claimed, were a collection of tools which could turn on the microphone and listen, turn your phone on or off at will, or track your location. They were nicknamed “nosey smurf”, “dreamy smurf”, and “tracker smurf” respectively by GCHQ. 

As off-the-wall as it sounded, Snowden was right – at least about the fact that GCHQ has tools which can hack into our phones’ functions in order to monitor us. And yet while the media and tech communities reacted with horror, the general public didn’t seem to care very much.

Over the weekend, a similar story blew up around the world – but this time, the public was horrified. Professor Kelli Burns, a social media expert from the University of South Florida, seemed to imply in an interview with US-based Channel 8 that Facebook was using our phone microphones to listen to conversations and serve us targeted ads. 

She spoke about a jeep out loud while holding her phone, and then visited her Facebook feed. The top-served post was three hours old, and mentioned a jeep. A car ad then appeared. “That is kind of weird,” she told the network. “I’m still not so sure this isn’t just coincidence. I don’t think Facebook is really listening to our conversations.”

Despite this caveat, allegations that Facebook was “listening” to us bounced around the world, based largely on this section of the site’s terms and conditions:

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 “We use your microphone to identify the things you’re listening to or watching, based on the music and TV matches we’re able to identify.” 

As the site has since pointed out, however, this permission is for a specific Shazam-esque feature which will identify songs or TV shows. No sound recordings are ever stored on the site’s servers. Facebook asks for your permission to access the microphone for this feature and audio calls, and you can say “no” to this or disable the microphone completely for the app in your settings (here’s how for iPhone, Android.) 

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“Facebook does not use microphone audio to inform advertising or News Feed stories in any way,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “Businesses are able to serve relevant ads based on people’s interests and other demographic information, but not through audio collection.” 

So Facebook isn’t storing any data on your conversations, or even listening in without seeking your permission first. But other technology, including the Samsung TV, which is voice activated, listens all the time for instructions, and even stores audio files on its servers. Meanwhile, in 2015, the BBC heard from a security firm that a single piece of software, sold around the world, can give any hacker similar access. 

And the Investigatory Powers Bill (nicknamed the “Snooper’s Charter”), currently making its way through UK parliament with little fuss, includes powers which would allow security agencies, and sometimes even police, to remotely hack computers and phones. They could use webcams and microphones which are apparently turned off to monitor you –  a power whistleblowers like Snowden proved they were already using anyway. 

Hopefully, these powers will only be used in exceptional circumstances; though the then head of the Metropolitan Police technical unit, Detective Superintendent Paul Hudson, told the Guardian phone hacking techniques were used in the “majority” of serious crime cases.

If we’re really so bothered about the prospect of Facebook listening to us, we should take pause at the news that our police and security services are doing the same. 

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