It happens, and it often happens (except for the third point, which touches on science fiction), so often as to push many to wonder not only how it is possible, but even if our smartphone is computer (especially the first ones, who are always next to us) are able to spy on us, look at us, listen to us without our knowledge. Or maybe even read our thoughts.
The doubt returns cyclically, not only to ordinary people, but also to rulers, so much so that last year, in the wake of Cambridge Analytica scandal, the US Senate asked Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, if the social network is able to spy on us through the microphones of mobile phones. He replied no, which in itself does not mean much (it would not be the first time that one of the giants of the Net lies to a government), if not for the fact that it is the same answer that some "experiments" have reached on the theme also conducted recently.
Between last summer and the beginning of autumn, the BBC and others reported that of some researchers of the Wandera, a company that deals with cybersecurity precisely on mobile devices: in a nutshell, they put 2 smartphones (Apple is Android) first in a room where animal food advertisements were heard and then in a silent one, noting that the amount of data entering and leaving the devices was almost identical. And also very low, especially when compared to the one that passes from mobile phones when we use the voice to interface with the virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant: in short, if from our smartphone were sent recordings to some kind of hidden server who knows where, this data transfer should be perceptible.
In my small way, I too have made a sort of "experiment": for a few nights, I walked home saying out loud that "I really want to buy a jet ski, who knows how much it costs and who knows where I could find it" (and who knows what the neighbors will think at this point), leaving the phone unlocked next to me; then I asked the same questions to my Google Home, which obviously suggested a couple of places to buy a water bike in Genoa and also informed about prices. And yet, in the following days, no banners, no advertising online, no "suggestion" on Amazon to push me to really buy it, a jet ski.
So our mobile phones don't spy on us? David Gubiani, responsible for Southern Europe of Check Point Software, an Israeli company active in cybersecurity, thinks differently: "They do it all right, but for 80% it's our fault, that we install the apps without checking their origin, even from unverified online shops, perhaps even giving them permission to access microphone and camera without reading the conditions we are accepting ». The problem is that modern smartphones actually have all the "weapons" to keep us under control, from the microphone to the cameras, to the GPS that tracks our position in real time; besides the fact that through them our whole life passes: "Accounts in the bank, images, emails, contracts, chats that show that we are betraying our partner – recalled Gubiani – and yet the first thing we think of when we buy a new one is which cover to choose … ». To protect it outside, but not inside.
Yes, but then how do they do it?
However, the point is not whether analysts and advertisers secretly record our conversations to know everything about us: it's that they know so much about us that they don't really need it, to record our conversations secretly. But how do they do it? How do companies know what we plan to buy? How does Facebook to know which model of Nike we would like and propose it in a banner? How does Amazon "advise" us exactly that TV we talked about with a colleague? Excluding malicious apps, those created specifically to steal our information, they succeed by controlling what we do online and in the real world, in more or less legitimate and more or less transparent ways.
First of all, with cookies, those tiny text files that we have learned to "accept" every time we browse, which in the simplest version keep track of our preferences for a particular site (thanks to cookies and Google search results the links to the pages we have already visited are colored purple instead of blue, for example), but they can also contain information on our entire browsing history.
Then, with the "login with …" function: when we access a site by not creating a specific password to register, but using our account on Facebook or Google as a "bridge", often that site also obtains information on our mail, perhaps on our position in the world, on our friends and contacts on social networks. And this is how "profiling" begins: for example, an online store, in addition to keeping track (through cookies) of the activity we do on its pages, of the products we watch, we put in the "cart" and then we don't buy, it also comes to knowledge (thanks to "login with …") of our nickname on social, of where we live and of our mail, so it can then send us (or let us appear before) targeted communications precisely on those objects that could interest us.
Finally, with the so-called "Facebook pixel", a tiny part of the pages of many sites of all types and from all over the world, which together with the most obvious "like" and "share" buttons allows the Zuckerberg social network to keep track of what we do online, even following us from site to site: which articles let's read, which videos look, up Which images we click, which topics we are interested and so on. All this is used to track our consumer identikit, which then translates into incredibly precise advertisements not only on Facebook, but also on Instagram (which to Facebook belongs).
In the real world, as Il Secolo XIX proved over 3 years ago the "surveillance" is realized above all through the detection of our position (thanks to the smartphone gps), which allows us to know where we live, how we move about the journey from home to work, which shops we have near and so on. This, again, means that the banners may relate to just that store that we always pass in front of before entering the office. Also, the friends list: Facebook knows which people we interact with most often online and assume that this happens even offline. So, if one of our contacts is a big fan of a TV series, he often writes about it, maybe he talks about it with us, it is possible that even for us to snack advertising that series or the streaming channel that broadcasts it. Even though we never looked for it online.
The "confirmation bias"
All this, as Gubiani said, is also our fault, even unconsciously: when we browse the web pages on our mobile phones, perhaps distracted by something else, because we wait for the bus, we are on the subway, we watch TV, we don't really pay attention to everything we see. Instead, our mind tends to notice what we really care about. Like the advertising of those shoes that we would like or of which a friend had talked to us a couple of nights before. It is a known psychological mechanism: doctors call it "confirmation bias" (in English, "confirmation bias") and it is demonstrated above all in the behavior of the so-called "conspiracy theorists", who among all the information they come across will tend to take for real those that support their theories and instead to discard those that question. Advertisers know this weakness of the human soul well, combine it with all information in their possession and exploit it to their advantage.
Four ways to defend privacy and freedom of choice
To protect ourselves, we have some possibilities: some come to us from technology, others have to find them within us, changing our way of acting online (and well offline, eventually deciding to activate the smartphone gps only when necessary).
First of all, know the sites well on which we navigate: Chrome, Google's browser, provides an extension called Facebook Pixel Helper (you can install by clicking here) which informs us if there are Facebook Pixels on that page, so we can decide how to act on that site, where to click and where not. Or if you visit it with the "Incognito" mode, available on most popular browsers.
Then, limit as much as possible or otherwise improve the use of the "login with …" function: create a specific password for each site that asks to authenticate "size" one of the main sources of information for analysts and advertisers. If you don't have time and you can't help but log in with your Facebook or Google profile, then better check what information we are selling: just a click to find out (image below), and eventually deselecting the superfluous ones. Some sites would even take them all if you didn't prevent them.
Again, returning to the discussion of what we install on the smartphone without paying too much attention, Gubiani reminded us that "there are many apps (that of Check Point is called ZoneAlarm, ed), which with a cost of a few euros can control reliability and the possible danger of a program before it is downloaded to the phone ».
Finally, common sense: «It is better not to download anything except from the authorized platforms (Play Store for Android and App Store for Apple, ed) – it is the recommendation of Gubiani – And if an app refuses to take action unless all access permits are granted … it is a clear signal that it would be better to trash it ». In general, in short, «let us act with technology as we do with human beings: our trust must be earned, not granted to the first (program, ed) that passes ".