Updated: This story has been updated to reflect comments from Apple after publication.
I watch most TV shows and movies on my iPad these days, and something strange happened recently. My iPad – or rather apps such as Hulu and Bravo linked via Apple TV on my iPad – started showing me commercials in Spanish.
That was interesting, since I hadn’t touched the language settings, watched any shows in Spanish, or done any kind of internet activity in another language. But even more curious, was what had changed when the new commercials popped up.
We had just moved to a more Spanish-speaking area of Oakland, California. While I don’t speak Spanish (very well at least), my husband does and was doing so daily with contractors in our new house within “earshot” of my iPad.
Could this timing and sudden sprinkling of Spanish commercials for insurance, seatbelt safety, and affordable college degrees be mere coincidence? Or was it a clear sign of location-based tracking? With Siri voice-assistance active, is my gadget, or the TV apps on it, specifically working to better predict my wants and needs – and providing Spanish speaking commercials – to be more “helpful?”
Like so many other people who’ve mentioned a product in conversation only to see it pop up in an ad on Facebook the next day, I’ve long wondered if, why, and how exactly, my gadgets are “listening,” to my life.
“It’s technically possible and quite easy for Apple and Android apps to listen to your conversations, but this being done on a large scale hasn’t been proven,” says Matthew Crowley, principal and co-founder of Cleveland-based cybersecurity firm Cyprus Lake.
While potentially possible for rogue apps to eavesdrop, Crowley said that’s not likely what happened in my case because there are too many other easier ways for companies to get ad-targeting information about us.
“A lot of applications look at your location, track your internet surfing, credit card purchases, and might even have access to photos and notes. Considering they can harvest words off of your pictures, correlate other faces, and access contacts to your devices, these data brokers can put all of this information together to create a full profile of who you are,” Crowley added.
And Apple says it engineers its devices to protect user privacy. When it comes to Siri, which is integrated in nearly every Apple device, the assistant is designed to activate only after the wake word (“Hey, Siri”) or a waking action is completed, Apple says.
So is my device actually spying on me?
“The simple answer is no, your (gadget) is not likely actively listening to your conversations,” Northeastern Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science David Choffnes told me over the phone. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t (enabling the collection of) millions of data points to know who you are, where you live, what stores you shop at, where your kids go to school, and just about everything else.”
Choffnes also explained that some of the most basic tracking for advertising uses our IP address and that since I had just moved, “maybe you got someone else’s address,” he surmised. “I don’t know that for sure, but it’s not uncommon.”
Sure enough, when I deleted and then reinstalled both the Bravo and Hulu apps now that we have our router all set-up in our new home, I didn’t get any more commercials in other languages
The ability for companies to harvest all of this information about us, with lighting fast speed, is hard enough to wrap our heads around. But are they really doing all of this to sell us stuff? “That’s the billion-dollar question,” Choffnes said.
What your Android device knows
Choffnes supervised research back in 2018 that looked at 17,000 Android apps to determine whether they accessed phone microphones without users knowing about it. While the research turned up zero signs of audio eavesdropping, it did shed light on many other ways companies profile us, some more alarming and intrusive than others.
“We found that every (Android) app has the ability to record your screen and anything you type,” Choffnes said, adding that some companies were sending screenshots and videos of user phone activities to third parties. Northeastern researchers did not find that any nefarious activity as a result of those screenshots, but Choffnes and others say it underscores a much larger privacy issue: No one really knows – or can know at this point – how many hundreds, even thousands of other little digital data crumbs we leave all around every single day, and ultimately how all of that information will get used.
“It’s more than to sell you things,” Crowley said. “It’s now figuring out where you spend your money, how to get your vote, and essentially about trying to manipulate society. The ads are a symptom of a larger problem, and we need to do a lot more work keeping (our private data) safe and regulating what companies can do with it.”