Consumer Wise: Is your smartphone spying on you?

By Angie Moreschi, Consumer Wise Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 1:09 PM EDT

Whether it's "Hey, Siri, what’s the weather?" or "Okay, Google, what time is it?," we use our smartphones for just about everything these days. We talk to them, search the Internet, and use them as a compass. They’ve become indispensable, but all this convenient technology comes at price.

"It's creepy. Sometimes I feel like the actual phone is listening," said Johnny Moreno, who uses an iPhone.

Moreno is suspicious that sometimes his phone knows a bit too much.  He swears it will ping him with an advertisement, even when he hasn’t searched for an item online.

"We have a conversation with friends and family members, and then all of a sudden you get a notification from the app, like an ad. It's kind of freaky!" he said.

Big Brother Watching

So how did we get here, feeling like our phones are "Big Brother" watching? Well, in many ways, we kind of did it to ourselves.

We give up a lot of our privacy rights when we download certain apps.  Many of them request access to our phone's location services, camera, contacts, or microphone to enhance their performance. And most of the time, we just "tap" and give it to them.

"They're compiling so much data of your daily life, everything that you do all day — where you go, how long you spend there, what you’re browsing on your computer at work, on your laptop, then your tablet, your iPhone, iPad, and it’s just compiling all that data for everything,” said Sam Marco, owner of The Cell Specialists in Tampa.

You probably know about "cookies," which are little bits of electronic data you leave behind whenever you go to a website. Well, major companies now share that data along with location tracking data.  It's the result of a trade group called the Digital Advertising Alliance, ironically created to help prevent abuse of your privacy.

"Hundreds of companies are part of the DAA," Marcos said. "Everything you're doing on any one of those applications is being shared to all the rest of them."

Data Sharing or Spying?

Tracking data you allow is one thing, but some are suspicious of more.

"I just say the word 'Google' and it will activate. It feels like they are listening even when you are not giving them permission," said John Delgado, who uses an Android phone.

Big tech and social media companies deny spying. They say it's just that you're more likely to notice an ad or notification when something is on your mind and you’ve recently been talking about it.

Marcos thinks those strange coincidences have a lot to do with all our devices being connected and all those companies sharing data.

"A friend posts a picture about a cat. You 'like' it. Now, you're a cat lover. The next time you open Facebook, you might get an ad for cat food.  It’s not because you told your wife or husband, ‘The cat needs to eat now.’ It’s because you liked cat stuff before," he explained.

In yet another example, Marcos said it could be your location services to blame.

"If you're a person who goes to a sporting goods store, then you might see a sporting equipment ad pushed to your Facebook page," he said.

Disable tracking

If you feel like your smartphone knows more than you want it to, you can take action to prevent at least some of the tracking.  Disable access to features like your microphone, camera, contacts, and geo-location for apps that you don’t want to have it.

For an iPhone:

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Scroll down and click on Privacy
  3. Choose and click on a feature (like location services, microphone, camera, contacts, etc…)
  4. You will see which apps have access to that feature
  5. If you don’t want the app to have access, toggle it off

For a Google Android phone, you go to Settings, and follow similar steps to turn off access to features. If you want, you can even turn off ad tracking, but they try to get you not to.

"Google has by default all kinds of permissions enabled," Marco said. "If you turn off permissions, you get a warning that your device may no longer work as intended."

Moreno acknowledges he has given his apps access to many of his phone’s tracking features.

"At this point, we can’t control it anymore, because we've given in so much. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have any privacy," he said.

Privacy vs. Function

The trade-off for privacy is losing some of the functionality of your apps and phone.

"It becomes a little bit of an inconvenience to try and stop them from tracking you," Marcos said. "Next time you use Instagram and you want to take a picture, it’s going to ask you again, 'Will you allow the camera?' You have to say 'Yes.' Take your picture. Then, go back to the menu and settings and disable access again."

It's a tough choice, but most folks just put up with the invasion of privacy to get the benefits. 

“If your phone doesn't know where you are, then you're not going to get that coupon — Buy one. Get one free — for the pizza store right next door. And you've lost out," Marcos said laughing.