Explainers

Prying Eyes: Can Our Tech See and Hear Us?

September 6th, 2018

Is there a vulnerability hidden in your smartphone or laptop mics and cameras? Is someone truly listening through your active listening devices such as your Alexa or Google Home? Are you being watched? Parents, are your kids being watched?

The reality is that nothing—including hardware—is truly safe from hackers. There are ways to protect your smartphones, computer webcams and even your baby monitors, but nothing is 100 percent safe 100 percent of the time. Popular Science offers a course that claims they can make your personal life “unhackable,” but that’s only until a software patch causes a new vulnerability to surface. Unfortunately, even mobile apps can be listening in on our most private conversations by a little-known setting that allows the app manufacturers access to your cell phone’s microphone. 

The majority of laptops and tablets come with some sort of forward-facing camera that is often used to talk to others via Skype, Google Hangouts and any number of legitimate business and personal uses. However, there are unsavory individuals out there who have been paying $1 per view as far back as 2013 to hack into users’ webcam. Today’s webcams are worryingly vulnerable, to the point where many people consider the low-tech option of covering them with tape. This option seems like an odd step to take, but even security professionals in the government such as former FBI Director James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, admit to keeping the microphones and webcams covered up when not in active use. 

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that our phones and other active listening devices are being used to target advertising in our direction: ads in Spanish suddenly appearing on feeds immediately after using a language app, for example. Tech companies continue to deny they’re listening and watching. Still, privacy experts recommend taking steps like disabling smart devices in the home if you want to be certain no one’s eavesdropping on your conversation.

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