Eighty-five percent of the American population owns a smartphone, an estimated 3.5 billion people, according to Pew Research Center. Our smartphones now serve endless functions-- there's an app for almost anything you can imagine. And 47% of Americans who own a smartphone say they couldn't live without it!
But with all of the possibilities that these apps offer comes great responsibility. What do we mean by that? Well, have you ever noticed an orange dot appear on the right-hand corner of your phone screen?
The Dot Isn't Very Noticeable
An orange dot might have appeared on your phone before, only you didn't notice it. It can be easy to miss, as it's so small.
In September 2020, Apple rolled out a new iPhone software update called iOS 14. After the update, users began seeing the orange dot appear on their phones. But unless you're super tech-savvy, you might not have understood what the new iPhone feature actually means.
It Started With The iOS 14 Update
As with most iPhone updates, after running the iOS 14 update, your phone should have looked a little different. (Or maybe you upgraded to a new phone and it's the first time you've seen it.) This update included a new look for the redesigned widget gallery, which helps users to better organize their apps.
The update also affected messages, now allowing users to pin conversations, and also improving group messages. Maps were also given a new feature with improved cycling directions for those riding a bike while using the app.
Changes to Privacy Settings
Along with the previously mentioned new features, the iOS 14 update included some changes to user privacy. The new privacy features were designed to help improve transparency.
The update is also intended to help users understand what kind of access they're agreeing to when they download an app onto their phone. For each app that you download on your phone, you could unknowingly be giving access to your location, photos, microphone, camera, and even your phone contacts. But that's not everything that changed.
Technology Is Helpful... If You Know How To Use It
Of course, smartphones aren't the only modern technology devices that many of us rely on, on a daily basis. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest are designed to help us do simple things, hands-free.
With a smart speaker around your house, all you have to do is say the magic word, and Alexa or Google Assistant will be there to help. This modern technology isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Are They Always Listening?
A valid concern of customers who bought smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest is whether or not their smart devices are listening to every word that they're speaking in the privacy of their homes.
We've been told that they're designed to jump into action and begin listening once you call for it like, "Hey Alexa". This is what the product developers called the "wake word". In theory, the virtual assistant shouldn't be listening to what you're saying until you say the wake word.
The Device Is Connected To Cloud Computing
Hearing that the personal assistants connected to our smart speakers aren't listening until we speak the wake word is a little comforting. But then users began reading about how the Amazon Echo utilizes cloud computing for its services.
This means that whatever is spoken to the device is then transmitted to a remote server. In rapid time, the command is translated and sent back to the speaker for Alexa to reply.
Cloud Computing Means It's Paying Attention
To understand the way cloud computing is used by your smart speaker and virtual assistant, think of the products that are recommended to you when shopping online on sites like Amazon. Those product recommendations are based on your viewed items and purchase history, as well as search terms.
Basically, it's paying attention to your interactions. Virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant also work this way, as you'll soon find out.
Sometimes The Speaker Thinks You Said The Wake Word
Sometimes smart speakers will mistakenly think that you said the wake word, when in fact you didn't. And then what happens? The speaker continues to eavesdrop on your conversations, waiting for a command. Researchers at Northeastern University found in a study that smart speakers can be fooled into recording your conversation if they think that they heard a wake word like "Alexa," "Siri," or "Google."
This isn't good news for users who don't want their private conversations being recorded or listened to by strangers.
This Can Happen Once An Hour
In the same study, researchers at Northeastern University found that these accidental recordings can occur as often as once an hour, every day. However, it should only happen for a few seconds.
An associate Professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University said, "This validates what a lot of us are seeing anecdotally-- that these devices wake up all the time when they shouldn't, which can potentially constitute a privacy risk."
Amazon Says They're Working On It
Why does this issue continue to happen? Developers at Amazon, Google and Apple assure consumers that they're constantly working on improving the performance of their products, and the rate of accidental recordings should decline as the technology improves.
A spokesperson for Amazon told Consumer Reports in an email, "Our wake word detection and speech recognition get better every day-- as customers use their devices, we optimize performance and improve accuracy."
Of Course, It's Picking Up On Things It's Not Supposed To
It's pretty unsettling to learn that the makers of these devices and virtual assistants are well aware that they're recording things they're not intended to (or at least not to the user's knowledge). Director of Privacy and Technology Policy at Consumer Reports Justin Brookman said, "Digital assistants are imperfect technology-- it's not surprising that they're going to inadvertently capture data they're not supposed to."
He continued, "When we bring these devices into our houses, that's the risk we take, that they're going to be accidentally activated and record the things we say... there's no telling how they're using it to better understand us."
How To Stop The Recordings
There is a way to help prevent the Amazon Echo from listening in on your conversations in order to help Amazon improve its "product development." To block it, go into the settings and find your voice recording options. Turn it off from there.
You can also locate the Alexa Privacy menu on the Alexa app and turn it off. If you don't want your conversations going up into the Amazon cloud, this is a smart move to make!
The Case of Advertising Cookies
Going back to cloud computing, big companies like Amazon and Google are paying attention to what you're talking about and looking at in order to recommend products and brands that you might be interested in, based on your history. After all, this is valuable information for advertisers who want to put their product in front of you to buy.
But they're not just paying attention to what you're clicking on, as one reporter found out...
A Reported Claimed That Her Phone Was Listening To Her
Like many of us, The Sun reporter Miranda Knox was worried that her smartphone was listening in on her conversations. She decided to test her theory and prove that it was in fact happening, and it wasn't just paranoia.
Knox went into her phone settings and turned on the mic permission for all of her apps. For the experiment, she chose a few obscure topics that she's never searched for or showed interest in. She decided on "spandex," "business cards," and "vegan food." She logged into her social media account and began talking out loud about those subjects while she scrolled and swiped on her phone.
She Was Served Ads Related To The Topics!
Within days of beginning the experiment, Knox began seeing ads related to the obscure topics that she chose to test. "I felt like I was being spied on," she wrote in an article for The Sun. "Within days I was inundated with ads related to these key words."
She left the mic on and continued her daily routine. The ads continued. "I had a conversation with my husband about getting an armchair while my phone was next to me on the sofa-- and I was inundated with furniture ads."
A Warning From A Cyber Expert
After hearing of Miranda Knox's experience and frightening results, DefenceWorks founder and cyber expert Edward Whittingham said he's not surprised. He told The Sun, "There's no question as to whether or not our phones can listen to us, but the million-dollar question is are they?"
He advised people who are concerned about big business eavesdropping on your conversations should check the permissions on each of your phone apps. "You might be surprised at just how many have or request access to your microphone, camera, or even phone contacts. When there's no obvious or tangible reason as to why they'd need it," he warns.
It's Up To Us To Protect Our Privacy
It may seem like the companies creating these smart speakers, smartphones and virtual assistants aren't being completely transparent with their customers. What else are they not coming forward about?
It's sounding more and more like we have to do our own detective work and make sure that we're not blindly agreeing to open our home for these devices to record our conversations. Because let's be honest, who really reads all that fine print in the terms and conditions agreement?
The Orange Dot Means Your Mic Is Being Used
When you see the orange dot appear on the upper right hand of your phone, that means that your phone's microphone is being used. You'll see it appear when you make a phone call or start a voice recording. This makes sense because you'll need your microphone for these functions.
But what if you see it when you're not talking on the phone or sending a voice text? That's when you should be worried...
If The Orange Dot Randomly Appears, An App Is Using Your Mic
If you see the orange dot appear while you're browsing the internet or using an app, that's when you should be worried. That little orange dot indicates that something on your phone is accessing your microphone.
That means that your conversations are being recorded and anything that you say around your phone is likely being sent to the cloud. Don't be surprised if you start seeing ads served to you based on your recent conversations.
Take Back Your Privacy
Now that you know what the orange dot means, you can take back control of your privacy. Go into the settings on your phone and click on each of the apps you have downloaded to see what it has access to, including your microphone, camera, location, and contacts.
It's likely that you may find more than one culprit that has access to your microphone without any practical reason as to why.
The Orange Dot Won't Tell You Much Else
While the orange dot indicates that the microphone on your phone is being used, it doesn't tell you much else. It won't tell you exactly what's been recorded, or for how long. It won't even tell you which app was using your mic, or what it's using the recording for.
That doesn't sound fair, right? Raising awareness is a step in the right direction, and you are now more informed of when your privacy is being invaded. It might even make you think twice before you download another app!