Book a Call

Is your phone spying on you?

Is Your Phone Spying on You?

Most people seem to have a story. You know, the one that makes you ask: “Is Your Phone Spying on You?”.

We were driving up the A1, my son and I – heading for Edinburgh. Our phones were both nesting on the dashboard charger. To all intents and purposes, these phones were “off”, screens dark and untouched. I was driving; I hadn’t touched mine in hours.

At this point, my son was around sixteen years old and curious about music, old and new. He was pushing a curious combination of rap, post-punk mod and the Pogues through the car’s sound system … and he got to asking me about rock. “Did you like AC/DC?” he asked. I mentioned that I had seen them live in the eighties (not as good as Alice Cooper, the Damned, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nick Cave and a lot of others, but better than many). I had neither mentioned nor thought about the band in decades.

And yet, as we strolled out onto the Royal Mile the next day, I scrolled through the socials. Twitter and Facebook were with wall-to-wall adverts for AC/DC merchandise and tribute act gigs. I had only mentioned it briefly and just the once in over twenty years. And yet, suddenly, my phone was bloody full of the Australian rockers.

It could be a coincidence, but it seems far less than likely.

So What’s Going On? Is Your Phone Spying on You?

Most people touch their smartphones over 2000 times per day. Our phones go everywhere with us; some even take them to bed (including me). Several apps, e.g. Twitter/X, won’t even launch unless you give them explicit permission to access your microphone (giving the application the authority to record you – even when you’re not using the app). We choose the applications we want to use. Our interaction with our phones and those applications is a rich data source that reveal your habits and actions in detail.

I guess one could ask, “Why wouldn’t they spy on you?”

Once the domain of science fiction and spy novels, it is now an urgent concern.

It’s an unsettling topic. Have we invited Big Brother into our pockets?

The Reality of Digital Surveillance

Modern smartphones come with an array of sensors and tracking software. These include geo-location capabilities, microphones and cameras. Apps collect vast amounts of data. These features are designed to improve user experience and most of the most useful apps rely on some or all of these capabilities.

Yet this capability that makes our phones so beguiling and useful can also be utilised for monitoring purposes.

Data Collection by Apps

Many apps on your phone have access to a vast amount of your personal information. Social media apps, for instance, track your likes, dislikes, and browsing habits to tailor your feed to keep you enjoying using the app and returning. App developers ask to access your usage data (or they should). This data is, in turn, used to improve the applications. But where the application contains adverts, this data is also used to better target adverts to you. The process is not perfect – I’ve had quite enough Australian heavy metal for one lifetime – but it is effective. The world’s digital advertising spend is huge.

Data collection often goes beyond what is necessary for the app’s functionality. The line between legitimate processing and excessive data mining is hard to discern.

Location Tracking

Location tracking is another area of concern. Many apps request access to your location data for legitimate purposes, like navigation or location-based services. However, once granted, these permissions can lead to continuous tracking, sometimes without explicit ongoing consent.

Could you accurately count the number of applications that show you’ve gone on holiday for a fortnight? No? Me neither.

As to how many individuals who build those apps who could find out you’re away from home? That could be anyone’s guess.

Consent plays a vital role in this discussion. App permissions often come in lengthy, jargon-filled documents that many of us don’t read thoroughly. This oversight can unintentionally grant apps extensive access to our personal data.

Government and Third-Party Access

It’s not just app developers and the phone’s operating system owners who might have access to your data. Governments can also request data from tech companies for various reasons, ranging from criminal investigations to national security.

Moreover, data breaches and unauthorised third-party access remain significant risks, with hackers potentially accessing sensitive information.

Protecting Yourself

So, how can you protect yourself?

  1. Manage App Permissions: Regularly review the permissions you’ve granted to apps. It’s a chore, but it is advisable to disable any permissions that aren’t necessary for the app to function.
  2. Use Secure Networks: Always use secure, encrypted networks. Public Wi-Fi can be a hotbed for digital snooping.
  3. Stay Updated: Keep your phone’s operating system and apps updated. Updates often include security patches. An insecure device might grant data access to some real crooks.
  4. Be Privacy-Aware: Consider using a VPN for an additional layer of security.
  5. Educate Yourself: Stay informed about digital privacy and security. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself.

The Bottom Line

Your phone isn’t spying on you; it’s an inanimate object. But it is an excellent tool to allow others to do so. It is designed to collect and transmit substantial data about your habits and preferences. If it didn’t, you would use it far less.

To some degree, many applications do spy on you.

Some apps work for your unambiguous benefit – navigation apps track your location and show you your location on a map – but for others, the transaction is much more nuanced. Regardless of the original intent of any social-media platform, to survive, they must keep you coming back. To maintain revenues, they must pitch successful advertising. Neither of these are of explicit benefit to you, the user.

Ultimately, if you want to make the best use of your phone, you will have to accept that some of your information will be shared. Further, the data shared will far exceed that to which you explicitly consent. Do you prefer to hold your phone on its side? Any number of apps will already know that. Conversely, the resources poured into creating an application can be huge. Many are free to use, so your data must be part of the bargain to remain viable. Sadly, there is always a risk that this data might be used to invade your privacy.

Awareness of these issues and taking proactive steps to protect your digital privacy is more important than ever. Remember, in the digital age, knowledge and caution are your best defence.