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What Your Phone is Collecting on You

Written by: Meagan C. Hopkins

Have you ever scrolled through Facebook, come across an ad about something you were just talking about with a friend and wondered, “is my phone listening to me?” Thankfully your phone is not listening to you, because that would be illegal. However, your phone is collecting a tremendous amount of data about you, surely making it feel as though it’s listening. Even worse, all that data is being monetized against you in the form of personalized advertisements. Understanding what is collected and how to prevent further collection is an important way to minimize the risk of your personal information getting into the wrong hands.

What’s being collected

Smartphones collect information through sensors imbedded within the phone and apps downloaded by the user. The sensors enable the phone to track your location, your health status, location, and various other measures of the environment around you. Some hardware sensors, like the microphone and camera, cannot be turned off because they are vital to the functioning of the phone. However, other sensors may be able to be manually turned off under the settings tab depending on what phone you have.

Much of the data that is being monetized comes from downloaded apps. Tucked inconspicuously within the Terms and Conditions, that you inevitably don’t read, because who has the time, is a long list of the data the app collects. Among the top offenders of personal data collection are social media apps, particularly those owned by Facebook (Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram), and they aren’t just collecting your name and email. By using their apps you may be allowing Facebook to collect facial and environmental recognition, voice data/recognition, access to your live location, and nearly 30 other data points on you.

Other top offenders include shopping apps, Amazon and Wish, food delivery apps, Door Dash and Caviar, and the payment app PayPal. Still, the worst offender is likely Google who not only collects data across its apps but also its devices and services. Google and its subsidiaries collect every search you’ve made on Google, every place you’ve gone using Google Maps, every video you’ve watched on YouTube, every automatic password fill-in you’ve saved, and every credit card you’ve used. It’s a tremendous amount of data that is then used by advertisers to place targeted ads in front of you.

How data is being used

It really boils down to money. Since many of the apps collecting data are generally free to use, they need to make their money elsewhere. Ergo, they monetize the use of your data by allowing advertisers to purchase personalized ad space to target specific demographics. This is accomplished by creating individual profiles that can be purchased based on the demographic that an advertiser wishes to target. Take Facebook and Google, they use location information, search history and other data collected to create millions of individual user profiles. These profiles include all the information that you’ve ever shared with Facebook. An advertiser then informs Facebook about the age, gender, interests it is looking to advertise to, and Facebook supplies them with a pool of profiles meeting those needs. Which is why you see an ad for a restaurant you’re near or a product you’ve recently searched for.

What you can do to prevent data collection

The best way to prevent the collection of your data is to avoid supplying it in the first place. Reduce the amount of information that you share on social media profiles, delete apps that you no longer use, and, though boring, read through the Terms and Conditions when downloading apps to understand what is being collected.

To prevent your phone from tracking your location, you should turn off your location services. On an Apple, this can be found under the privacy settings, location services. Under Android, the location tab of the settings. In addition to this, you should periodically clear out your saved location history. For Android this is found in the same tab as location service, by tapping “Delete Location History.” On an Apple, it can be under the location service tab, scroll down to “System Service” and switch your signification locations off and then “Clear History.”

Ultimately the only way to prevent the absolute collection of your data is to avoid the use of the devices and apps all together. But, if you’re like me, that’s not a realistic solution. Therefore, the best alternative is to be informed about what data is collected, how it’s being used, and what measures you can take to minimize its collection.

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