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Google spies on 2.89 billion users through mobile devices

Checking your mobile phone for suspicious traces of intentional spy on your life (or something like that)

Updated: September 15, 2021 By Ozair Malik

Adding Google account on the mobile phone

Image source – freepik.com

Do you always feel like someone is watching or listening to you through your mobile device?

Surveillance is no longer the stuff shown in old James Bond movies – placing a bug in a room or an agent tailing you all day. Also, you never see a 007 type spy with a long black coat and a hat. Now, your mobile device is a spy.

The disguised spy – your mobile device is continuously sending intelligence reports back to his bosses, i.e., Google, Facebook and, Apple. They are also eavesdropping on you via your mobile’s microphone along with logging your personal data.

In November, MailOnline received leaked transcripts of Google Voice Assistant recordings.

One transcript of the conversation said: “if you ever get booked down to my house for some reason, the key safe for the back door is 0783.”

Disclaimer: Results can vary depending on you, the device you’re using and, your settings.


How to check if my mobile is listening to me?

I investigated my mobile to establish proof of concept for the above revelations.

You can catch your mobile-the disguised spy by setting up a trap just like you set a trap for catching a mouse.

Before jumping to the detailed explanation of the investigative method, I would like to tell you the story of my experience with the test. My colleague at the CoolTechZone, Dima, and I picked up few topics that we were sure none of us had discussed recently in the proximity of phone, nor searched on Google:

  1. Dima chose to prepare for CompTIA Security+ certification;
  2. I decided to eat at restaurant named Ranchers.

One day, we went to a coffee shop near our office, put our phones on the table in front of us, and talked about the selected topics for about a few minutes. The conversation took off from berlin’s beauty to tourist hotspots and, 5-star hotels landed at the latest Tesla models.

The next day we went to a restaurant for lunch in office break and repeated the same thing. On the third and the last day, I went to Dima’s desk, and we recounted the same conversation with our phones placed in front of us. 

This exercise aimed to see if we get the recommendations or see ads related to the discussed topics. We both closely monitored the results.

How to set up a trap

  1. Select a unique topic
  2. Brainstorm in isolation
  3. Choose keywords for search engine
  4. Talk about the topic loudly near your phone

1. Select a unique topic

The topic should be something you are sure you have never discussed earlier. Also, it should be pretty different from your regular conversations. In other words, it should be unique and exciting.

Most importantly, make sure that you have never Googled that topic before.

2. Brainstorm in isolation

Please remember that you must not choose the topic in the proximity of mobile or other personal gadgets. Also, do not use your mobile to search for ideas or info on the subject.

For better results to brainstorm the topic in isolation. I would recommend doing it manually on a notepad.

Moreover, before discussing the idea with anyone, I recommend completely turning off the phone and hiding it in a soundproof space.

3. Choose keywords for search engine

You might be aware that search engines work on keywords. That is why we do SEO of our content before putting it on the web. Similarly, it is essential to select a primary topic keyword and other related keywords to trigger a search engine.

Let’s suppose Tesla. The list of keywords should include “Tesla Model X,” “Self Driving Tesla,” “and 2021 Tesla Model”, “Prices of Tesla,” etc.

Such keywords would trigger a search engine, and it will recognize the context of your conversation.

4. Talk about the topic loudly near your phone

I chose to do this with my colleague Dima. However, you can do this alone too.

Discuss the chosen topics for 15-20 minutes each day loudly next to your phone. Perform this exercise for a couple of days for concrete results.

Moreover, your phone should only know about the topic by hearing you talk about it.

What did we observe?

The investigation outcomes were what we expected.

I started receiving ads of “Ranchers” latest deals and promotions.

Likewise, Dima started getting recommendations of Udemy courses and preparatory material. Alongside, discount coupons for purchasing courses.

Thus, we were able to catch the disguised spy red-handed. Moreover, we proved that our mobiles listen to us when we least expect them to.

Also, this proof of concept gave privacy activists another fact to solidify their stance.

Edward Snowden- the user privacy activist and whistleblower of NSA in an interview gave a profound statement about their spying, I quote:

They are selling our Past;

They are selling our Present;

They are selling our Future;

They are selling our US.

                                               ~Edward Snowden

Another internet privacy activist and professor at the University of South Florida, Kelly Branson, conducted such an investigation. Amazingly, she observed the same, and her Facebook feed was flooded with ads related to the topics discussed.

Screen shot of Facebook news feed showing Ranchers Sponsored Ad.

Screenshot of Facebook news feed showing Udemy sponsored ad.

Here is another social proof;

Hisham Sarwar, a Pakistani entrepreneur, freelancer, and, teacher posts on his personal Facebook profile. You can read what he says in the attached screenshot.

Screenshot of Faceebook post of a Renwoned Pakistani enterprenuer, freelancer and, teacher mentioning about getting ads related to the fancy lights which he discussed with team.


How to stop your mobile from listening to you?

  • Block microphone
  • Always check app permissions
  • Delete voice history
  • Protect data via a VPN
  • Look for unknown apps

Honestly, if you ask me, I would suggest completely removing the microphone from your mobile phone. This is the only way you can fully ensure that your mobile is not taping you. 

Edward Snowden, in an interview, revealed that he detaches the microphone and camera from his phone before using it. If he didn’t find any other way of securing his privacy, there is no other efficient way.

However, I understand we cannot be like Edward. Thus, I recommend you some measures that can help protect your privacy to some extent. 

Let’s have a look at them.

Block microphone

There are such pieces available in the market that help you physically block the microphone and reduce its hearing capability. Find a handy solution for this so that you can remove the blockade when needed for speaking over the phone. 

This method will limit the number of conversations it hears while discussing a private matter with your partner.

Always check app permissions

Go to your mobile settings and review app permissions of already installed apps, whether system apps or 3rd party. Revoke unnecessary permissions and especially microphone access.

A calculator app should not concern your microphone, but every time it asks for permission to access it. This is similar to all other apps you install from Play Store.

By giving such unnecessary permissions, you allow internet giants to spy on you. Thus, always provide very limited and required access of your device to every app.

Delete voice history

You must be using Google assistant to give voice instructions to your phone; everybody does these days.

Your audio recording is saved every time you say something to the Assistant. However, Google now allows you to delete the audio history from the app.

Hence, delete the voice recording at the earliest to avoid being a part of the leak.

Protect data via a VPN

You should know what a VPN does because a good VPN can save you from a big mess. A VPN simply encrypts your network traffic for the outside world and masks your IP address.

There are a lot many free and paid VPN’s available out there. But, I would recommend using paid and top-rated ones. Moreover, make it a habit to go on the internet through a VPN. 

Look for unknown apps

Sometimes malicious apps get installed while you are surfing the internet and go unnoticed. Thus, check your apps periodically and remove any suspicious app you find; also, perform periodic antivirus scans.


Conclusion

You cannot completely protect your privacy over the internet. However, you can apply critical protective measures to limit the invasion of your privacy.

Unfortunately, complete privacy is a myth on the internet.

Although tech giants like Google repeatedly deny such accusations, our investigations always solidify our stance that Google spies 2.89 billion users through mobile devices.

Now, you must be aware that there is a disguised spy inside our very personal gadget.

I would recommend investigating your mobile by following my technique. 

And, let me know the results in the comment below.

Author
Ozair Malik
A passionate Cyber Security researcher and writer with a keen interest in Digital Forensics. A community worker running a insta blog to raise cybersecurity awareness among laymen.

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