General Question

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

Are certain apps listening to phone conversations?

Asked by SquirrelEStuff (9178points) February 8th, 2015

I am aware that one can receive targeted ads based on things mentioned in emails or searched for on the web, but recently I noticed that I have been receiving emails based on things talked about in phone conversations, but not searched for, or typed in any computer, phone, or tablet.

I try not to be careless when downloading apps, and understand that when it comes to free apps, the user is typically the product.
Are certain apps gaining access to real time phone calls through permissions?

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11 Answers

anonymous6059's avatar

The NSA can supposedly use a backdoor in all smartphones to listen in on your conversations.
Even when you turn the phone off they can listen.

talljasperman's avatar

Air phones can listen in when unplugged. Even when turned off. So I say yes.

anonymous6059's avatar

I have actually always avoided smart phones up until just a few hours ago when I bought my first one, but I still am not going to activate it. I got it for other purposes…. Anyway, I would look for a toolkit of privacy apps in the google play store.

anonymous6059's avatar

I think you can run TOR in android phones. Might be able to use a VPN… and something called REDPHONE, but I have never used that one. Anyway, to answer your question I don’t know if you downloaded a program that has a virus in it. That really doesn’t matter anyway because big data is all up in your smart phone watching everything you do.

gorillapaws's avatar

If I had to guess it’s more likely that it’s picking this up through social media. For example, if you have a friend who links you a crib on Facebook, and if your age is over x and you have a child aged 16–40 it could assume you’re child is about to have a baby and start targeting ads for grandparents.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Yes and no.

Let’s separate it into two questions:

1) Can agencies listen into your conversations?

Answer: absolutely yes. This is taking place at the various switching and signal processing facilities that the NSA forced the different phone companies to build about 10 years ago. So when your Verizon cell phone connects, it is actually routing your call to Verizon large electronic switchboard, which (a) sends the call to your destination, but at the same time (b) stores your conversation. My understanding is that not all calls are listened to by humans all the time, but that there are some “keyword” scanners that examine all words trying see if you are triggering a suspicious one. (Like: “blow up” or “Malaysia”)

2) Can apps listen in on your conversations?

Answer: probably not, yet. As good as smartphones are, they don’t have the capacity to do real time voice analysis themselves in real time. That’s why Google voice commands have to be sent to California for processing – the computers are better/faster there. They’ll get there, of course, but voice processing is fairly computationally intensive.

By the way, texting and email is much easier for the eavesdroppers to analyze, because it’s already in text. No voice processing is required. So it’s safe to assume that every text message and every email is being read, in very close to real time. Voiced, not so easy.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

I would like to give my most recent example of what happened to me.
I have an app called Zite on my iPhone. It is a news aggregator that provides daily news stories based on subjects that I pick, and more recently, sometimes subjects that I search for, or visit websites related to things I like. I understand that.
Last night, I was having a conversation with a friend regarding his ex-girlfriend. He was telling me things that made me respond by explaining how she is acting as a manipulator and a liar to make up these extreme situations to try and hold on to the relationship.
We had this conversation for a little while and I have never searched for matter on the subject or anything like that in any form of text. We did not text message on the subject. It was strictly talked about on the phone.

About an hour or so after the conversation, I opened up Zite, and right on the first page was an article titled, “How to recognize the 8 signs of emotional manipulation.”

Would you classify a smart TV in the same level of technology as a smart phone? I understand your argument made in #2, but ironically enough, this news story was released in the past 24 hours regarding Samsung Smart TV’s.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@SquirrelEStuff – Smart TVs are much more powerful than phones, computing-wise. I can easily believe that the Smart TV could have decoded it locally, but it’s more likely that the SmartTV (which is, after all, connected to the internet) sent the signal to a remote server to be decoded and stored.

I’ve read about these TVs before – their privacy controls are atrocious. I won’t buy one for that reason alone.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

Thanks for responding!
After reading the article, it seems that they also send the data to a remote server, but it seems that they then take that data, and sell it to third party companies, much like what happens with smartphones.
I did not realize that smart tv’s would be that much more powerful than smartphones. I will be looking into that, as now you have sparked my curiosity.

gorillapaws's avatar

@SquirrelEStuff Are you friends with this guy on Facebook, or some other social networking service? This seems a bit tin-foilly, but it’s possible that he searched for stuff related to emotional manipulation, and if his phone knew that he called you just prior to searching for that, then it could make that connection in theory. In other words, it could be completely unrelated to your actions, but infer your interests based on your social interactions and the actions of your friends.

I think it’s highly unlikely that your app is recording your calls, voice analyzing them and then searching the content for meaningful keywords to market to you. For one thing, Apple wouldn’t allow it (not just as a policy, but also from a permissions standpoint in the app itself—it wouldn’t have access to that data). The other point is that’s a crazy amount of work for the app to be doing, when it’s so much easier to just use your search data. It really would’t be worth the expense to try to engineer/code all of that extra crazy stuff.

Alternatively, it could be a simple coincidence. I see ads like that all the time and I don’t really search for that stuff.

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