How your phone is now the greatest spy tool

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You are being watched. Not just by Government but a device most likely your favourite gadget. It is the first thing you touch in the morning when you wake up, you walk around with it the whole day and it sleeps next to you.

Smartphones are turning out to be the most accurate surveillance devices ever invented by man.

Having evolved from a simple communication device to camera and music player, a modern smartphone has the capability to monitor the user’s health, movement, personal finances, habits and a lot of other data.

Smartphones continuously track our locations. They know where we live, where we work, where we go to school and where we spend our time.

With this plethora of highly personal information, the smartphones have become powerful potential spies.

Last year, taxi app service Uber used information collected on smartphones to detect one night stands in California, US.

“Anyone who took a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later has engaged in a one-night stand,” said the company.

If you doubt that, and you have an Android smartphone visit https://myactivity.google.com. It will show you all your activities across Google’s services, from Chrome and Search to Android and YouTube. Better yet visit https://myaccount.google.com/dashboard.

The two sites will show you every bit of information about you since the day you bought your first smartphone including places you have visited, emails (including deleted ones), visited websites, YouTube videos watched, contacts and even the apps you visit up to the last detail.

Sounds creepy, right? If you’ve ever used voice search on Google, you’ll see a list of audio recordings that you can play back and listen to right now. Very few people know that this data is there but your smart phone is now also your greatest spy. It has more information about you than your spouse, parents, friends or employer.

This capability by gadgets to track our movements came to the fore last week when after evading arrest for almost a month, the man who allegedly extorted money from over five Members of Parliament (MPs) was arrested after he briefly switched on his phone.

Police who had lost trace of Wazir Benson Chacha who is accused by Murang’a Woman Representative Sabina Chege of using her credentials to defraud MPs stayed in the same hotel in Tanzania with him for three days monitoring communication from his mobile phone without his knowledge.

The detectives could even tell that he had received money from a money transfer company in Dubai and that he had booked a bus from Tarime to Dar es Salaam before they pounced on him.

Data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics indicates that Kenya’s Internet penetration stands at 67 per cent of the population while 60 per cent own smart phones. The flip side of this is that over 30 million Kenyans every day are happily revealing very personal details to the world while at the same time broadcasting their locations.

This information can be used against them courtesy of surveillance capitalism. It is what drives the internet. Data is gold for marketing and advertising purposes, which is why many apps ask for access to your contacts, email, texts, photos, microphone and camera.

Most popular websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which offer their services to users for free make billions of dollars in return through selling information to advertisers.

Marketers then tie this information to your IP address or Google profile and begin to tailor particular advertisements to you. This is why every time you log in to any site in the internet you are likely to see advertisements related to what you are likely intending to purchase. This is called targeted advertising.

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“If you are investing money into advertising, you are going to want to see an increase in Return On Investment (ROI),” Mary Waitherero, a marketer says.

“That is why it is important to target your advertisements properly because people are likely to make a purchase if what is being marketed to them fits with their interests,” she says.

On the surface this looks like a win-win situation for both marketers and consumers. What is causing the current controversy across the world is when personal information about internet users is sold to companies without their knowledge.

Facebook which has in recent weeks been under fire allowing data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to manipulate elections in the US and Kenya by profiling the social networking site’s users on Friday said it would begin vetting everyone who places a political advertisement on its site.

“To get verified, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location. Any advertiser who doesn’t pass will be prohibited from running political or issue advertisements,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said.

“We will also label them and advertisers will have to show you who paid for them. We’re starting this in the US and expanding to the rest of the world in the coming months,” he said.

In an expose run last month by UK’s Channel 4 Cambridge Analytica allegedly profiled voters in Kenya using what they post on Facebook in order to aid Jubilee to craft their campaign messages. The Jubilee Party has however denied these allegations.

“I can assure you that even if they offered that kind of service we would not look for it because the dynamics of voter behaviour in this country is completely different from what you would have in your countries,” Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju said in the wake of these revelations.

But while it is only Facebook that is getting a backlash due to the manipulation exposed by Cambridge Analytica experts say the level of manipulation and spying done on internet users is widespread.

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“All your personal information is valuable. Companies understand this and want to manipulate you. Governments too,” Dennis Makori, the chief executive of OnPhone Group says.

“Mobile devices are perfect targets for this sort of surveillance because they are equipped with sensors that can monitor the user at all times. Technology companies know their apps are continuously collecting data through these sensors but few are open about it,” he says.

Every smart phone has at least one, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, an accelerometer, up to four microphones a barometer, two cameras, a light sensor, a thermometer and humidity sensor. They are not permission protected which means the phone’s user doesn’t have to give a newly installed app permission to access those sensors.

As a result, malicious companies can plant spywares on innocently looking apps in order to mine data about you. In November last year Google identified a new malware dubbed Tizi spyware which planted 20 different apps that targeted devices in African countries, specifically Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya.

The apps which have since been banned from Google Play Store could record calls on Watsapp, send and receive messages, access contacts, photos and Wifi keys. They could also recording audio and take pictures without displaying the image on the device’s screen.

According to a statement from Google 1,200 devices had been infected with the Tizi malware.

“If a Tizi app is unable to take control of a device because the vulnerabilities it tries to use are all patched, it will still attempt to perform some actions through the high level of permissions it asks the user to grant to it, mainly around reading and sending SMS messages and monitoring, redirecting, and preventing outgoing phone calls,” said the company in a statement.

By Vincent Achuka

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