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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.