Over the weekend something creepy happened. I am used to it happening through Facebook, but this was the first time it happened through Google or Google-related apps. I went shopping with a friend, and at the honey section, they explained to me why ‘Manuka’ honey is very expensive. It was just a by-the-way conversation. Until I wake up the next day, and YouTube’s first suggested video is from Business Insider titled “Why Manuka Honey is so Expensive”.
I looked back at the time my friend had mentioned ‘Manuka’. Our phones were in our pockets. None of us googled anything Manuka related after that conversation. But here was a video from a channel I rarely watch about a topic I am not interested in. How could that happen?
At the supermarket yesterday, my friend starts explaining to me why Manuka honey is so expensive.
Phones in our pockets. Neither of us googled anything manuka related. It was just a btw conversation
— Dickson Otieno (@DicksonOtieno) May 27, 2019
I’ve said I am used to this happening on Facebook where I meet someone today, and tomorrow among the suggested friends, I find their profile being suggested to me. Or sometimes, I talk about something I want to buy and I find my Instagram and Facebook flooded with ads about the item.
How it happens, I don’t know. Maybe the permissions we’ve given these apps to use the phone’s microphones are what makes them take advantage of that? It has to be through the microphones.
Facebook has completely denied using your microphone to listen in on you and target ads or stories based on what you were talking about. “We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced … to include music or other audio in your status updates.” But how is it I am seeing ads for things I haven’t searched for, things I’ve only talked about verbally with friends. How do I explain this? It cannot just be coincidence, and if you do a simple web search on Facebook listening, you’ll find very many people sharing stories of such stuff happening.
Now, if this already happens with just audio? How safe are the messages people share over the ‘end-to-end’ encrypted WhatsApp messaging platform that’s expected to have Facebook ads in 2020?
Back to Google and what happened with the Manuka situation. I went and checked my history to see if there might have been a manuka search… there wasn’t. I checked if my phone might have accidentally triggered ‘OK GOOGLE’ and heard our conversation about Manuka… there wasn’t any recording of that. I checked my YouTube history to see if I had watched any honey related topics in the recent past… nothing. I checked to see the last Business Insider video I watched and it was this one about the TESLA from close to 4 months ago. So how did a Manuka video pop up on my YouTube page when I had never heard of Manuka until my friend mentioned it in passing?
There’s only one explanation… either of our phone’s microphones sent that information to Google. And YouTube used that information to suggest the video. There’s no way this was coincidence. The YouTube algorithm cannot suggest something I am not interested in.
Our phones are definitely spying on us:
- From your keyboard when you type passwords, or when you go incognito
- Our cameras and microphones when we give permissions to certain apps that collect data
- Loan apps when you give them permissions to access your SMS chats
- Certain websites that have malicious trackers
- and so much more
There’s really no way to get over Google and Facebook spying on you, unless you completely stop using your phone. Or get rid of Google services and Facebook apps including Instagram and WhatsApp. Gladly, there’s the possibility of a future of Android that’s free from Google Services (read on /e/ OS) and is privacy focused.
But you should be careful of more malicious apps and websites. Don’t give apps permissions you don’t understand. Like why would a picture editing app require access to your phone or your microphone? Beware of keyboard apps, and only trust known services because keyboards can log in so much data about you.
There’s only one way for me to explain what happened over the weekend with the Manuka situation, our phones are spying on us, and there’s nothing we can do about it, as it stands. How that data is being used however is what should concern us most.