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Is Your Smartphone Spying on You? The House of Representatives Wants to Find Out

Ever feel like your smartphone is spying on you? It's uncanny how often an ad will start popping up shortly after that product comes up in a conversation, for example, or how phones never seem to lose track of you even if you disable all of their wireless connections. Apparently, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce (E&C) agrees that something here is at least a little suspicious, because it's asked executives at both Google and Apple to respond to a series of written questions regarding the privacy of Android smartphones and iPhones by July 23.

E&C said in letters to Google and Apple that it's concerned about November 2017 reports alleging that Android smartphones collect information from nearby cellular towers, Wi-Fi hotspots and Bluetooth beacons even when they're supposed to be offline. That data is then said to be sent to Google, which the E&C said defeats the purpose of disabling those protocols. The Committee said it's not aware of similar allegations for iPhones, but the reports about Android devices raised questions about phones with other operating systems, so it decided to involve Apple too.

It's not clear why E&C waited more than six months to ask Google and Apple about these specific problems. Yet the committee's other concern, which involves reports that phones constantly listen to "non-triggered data" until they hear a phrase like "OK, Google," is more recent. It also comes as companies like Amazon work to expand the reach of their digital assistants, many of which rely on such keywords (Amazon's Alexa has recently gone from the company's Echo product line to laptops, TV sets and several of the company's other products).

Companies have long explained that devices "listen" in two modes. The first is constantly running but supposedly deletes audio that doesn't contain one of the trigger words. Once those words are "heard," audio is sent to another part of the system that does the natural language processing, web searches, etc. that allow these voice assistants to function. The problem, according to E&C, is that third-party app developers have quietly received access to the "non-triggered data" that is never supposed to be shared or stored.

If that is the case, people may have been unwittingly providing app developers with access to any conversation their phone happened to hear. The basic principle behind this problem and the wireless data collection revealed last November is the same. People trust their smartphones, and if those devices continue to gather information and share it with others without their owners' knowledge or consent, they won't have the privacy they think they do. Is a lack of privacy really the cost of being able to participate in a modern, smartphone-dominated society?

E&C plans to find out. The committee sent one letter to Larry Page, the CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. In addition to providing written responses by the July 23 deadline, E&C also asked the executives to "make arrangements to provide Committee staff with a briefing on these topics."

You can read the full letters to Google and Apple by following those links. E&C's announcement of the letters and its interest in this issue can be found on its website.

  • USAFRet
    Generally, if a 'headline' asks a question, the answer is usually No.

    Here, however....this the rare case of the complete opposite.
    An obvious YES.
    Reply
  • Wolfshadw
    Good thing I'm of split personality. The things I say aloud are so in congruent, they'll never know who is saying what and will never be able to pin it on us.

    -Wolf sends
    Reply
  • Co BIY
    I'd like to see tech journalists answer these questions first. Unfortunately taking a deep dive into this tech is very tough.

    Congress is likely asking questions several generations old.

    Lets bring in a panel of Apple Engineers in closed session and ask them "What are your concerns about the Android operating system ?" and the reverse. (But that may not work since they will not give up the game on a competitor since that gives up their game too.)

    How about a cash whistle blowers prize for electronic privacy? Big enough to insure against industry blackballing for an insider. The X-prize for electronic freedom.
    Reply
  • Giroro
    If Congress actually cared about privacy and consumer rights, then they would pass literally any law to protect privacy and consumers.
    Instead, they pass things like the CLOUD act, which allows foreign countries nearly unlimited access to collect and purchase US citizen's private data without a warrant. US law enforcement is then allowed to buy back that admissible evidence, and bypass the warrant process entirely.

    They haven't even been able to pass a single common-sense guideline to protect our economy from the eventual collapse of the post-net-neutrality internet.
    Reply
  • g-unit1111
    Is your smartphone spying on you? Yeah probably.
    Reply
  • TJ Hooker
    I wish I could know how much you can control the "spying" through settings. I mean, if you do all your searches through google, use gmail, have google assistant, location history, etc. turned on then yeah your phone is "spying" on you, but you're basically telling it to at that point (in exchange for convenience, or possibly out of ignorance). I'd be really interested to see to what extent a user is able to limit telemetry and data harvesting simply through settings and choice of apps.
    Reply
  • g-unit1111
    21136809 said:
    I wish I could know how much you can control the "spying" through settings. I mean, if you do all your searches through google, use gmail, have google assistant, location history, etc. turned on then yeah your phone is "spying" on you, but you're basically telling it to at that point (in exchange for convenience, or possibly out of ignorance). I'd be really interested to see to what extent a user is able to limit telemetry and data harvesting simply through settings and choice of apps.

    I discovered a freaky feature of Google Maps the other day. I got in my car and I was trying to route it to where I was going and instead it suggested somewhere I should be going instead based on "suggestions from my timeline" - and it's a restaurant I go to quite frequently. So it was actually *MONITORING* this place that I go to based on the amount of times I visit it. And of course turning it off did nothing so having a feature where you could turn it off would be nice, but the current features are pretty worthless.
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    21136809 said:
    I wish I could know how much you can control the "spying" through settings. I mean, if you do all your searches through google, use gmail, have google assistant, location history, etc. turned on then yeah your phone is "spying" on you, but you're basically telling it to at that point (in exchange for convenience, or possibly out of ignorance). I'd be really interested to see to what extent a user is able to limit telemetry and data harvesting simply through settings and choice of apps.

    One of the main problems is that a lot of cheesy apps use a standard framework, with their code in the middle.

    Why does a flashlight app need access to the contacts list?
    It doesn't. Turn the screen to 100% white. Done.
    It's just that the framework wrapper has that code in there, and the clueless devs never took it out.
    Click click install, and it knows you, and sends your contact list to wherever.

    I shouldn't have to turn it off...it should never be in there to begin with.
    Reply
  • TJ Hooker
    @g-unit1111 do you have location history enabled? If so, then it really is monitoring everywhere you go, and would notice that you go to that one restaurant frequently. If location history is the feature you tried turning off, it's possible that it merely prevents logging going forward. I think there's some setting/option where you can go in and see (as well as delete) whatever data has been logged thus far.
    Reply
  • TJ Hooker
    21136815 said:
    21136809 said:
    I wish I could know how much you can control the "spying" through settings. I mean, if you do all your searches through google, use gmail, have google assistant, location history, etc. turned on then yeah your phone is "spying" on you, but you're basically telling it to at that point (in exchange for convenience, or possibly out of ignorance). I'd be really interested to see to what extent a user is able to limit telemetry and data harvesting simply through settings and choice of apps.

    One of the main problems is that a lot of cheesy apps use a standard framework, with their code in the middle.

    Why does a flashlight app need access to the contacts list?
    It doesn't. Turn the screen to 100% white. Done.
    It's just that the framework wrapper has that code in there, and the clueless devs never took it out.
    Click click install, and it knows you, and sends your contact list to wherever.

    I shouldn't have to turn it off...it should never be in there to begin with.
    Agreed, but with the last couple android versions you can manually grant/remove permissions for each app. So although the flashlight app may inexplicably ask for permission to my contacts, I can always deny it, and it will hopefully still work. The app for my bank asks for permissions to my contacts and calling function (for some useless sounding features I know I'll never use). I just deny it, and everything else still works fine.
    Reply