Earlier this month Finnish fashion and lifestyle magazine Image conducted a decidedly non-scientific experiment with smartphones. What they found was that apps like Facebook, granted access to a smartphone’s microphone, appear to be listening in on phone calls.
In the experiment, two journalists from the magazine spoke to each other on their smartphones, using the terms 'social democrat', 'female entrepreneurship' and 'bullying'. Not long after the phone call ended, they said, advertisements related to these subjects began to appear in both of their Facebook news feeds.
IT and communications magazine Tieotviikko also reported about a US man who had done a similar experiment. He used words like 'Louvre', 'Africa', 'safari' and 'climbing'. Moments later he, too, was soon bombarded by ads about vacation travel, art museums and climbing.
These results are far from conclusive, and experts in the field have voiced doubt over whether a giant corporation like Facebook would risk its reputation by tapping into people’s phone calls in this way. For its part, Facebook has already flatly denied that they gather information in this manner.
But Mikael Storsjö, a member of the digital rights organisation Electronic Frontier Finland, said something needs to be done about illicit electronic eavesdropping.
“There’s a big problem when privacy is violated – whether it’s done by the government or by the private sector,” Storsjö said.
He said the data protection law in Finland is based on directives from the EU, and is in the process of being revised.
“The problem is that large companies are lobbying more than ever in those negotiations,” Storsjö said.
Why are they listening in?
Online, just about everyone nowadays knows that companies are constantly looking for information about potential customers. It’s part of a contract between end users and companies like Facebook and Google; we get to use their services for free, in exchange for sharing information about ourselves.
By collecting the information end users enter into their services - like what things they search and shop for, and what they write in emails – companies like Google and Facebook are able to target more closely ads and services that end users might be interested in.
“You get the service in exchange for your privacy,” Storsjö said.
“We know that neither the Pentagon or the NSA are able to keep their data confidential,” Storsjö said. “Then you begin to realise that an online retailer – if someone wants to get at it – can’t keep their data confidential, either.”
“The only way to stop them is that there would be enough of an outcry against the practice,” Storsjö said. “But (companies) are prepared to go to great lengths to be able keep their hands on this data.”