In an age of smartphones, tablets and digital devices which are all sold to us as conveniences, it seems that these conveniences can actually be used as tracking devices, and now even listening devices which can pick up whatever you say as long as that device is on your person or even near you.
In a presentation at the Usenix security conference next week, researchers from Stanford University and Israel’s defence research group Rafael plan to present a technique for using a smartphone to surreptitiously eavesdrop on conversations in a room — not with a gadget’s microphone, but with its gyroscopes, the sensors designed measure the phone’s orientation. Those sensors enable everything from motion-based games like DoodleJump to cameras’ image stabilisation to the phones’ displays toggling between vertical and horizontal orientations. But with a piece of software the researchers built called Gyrophone, they found that the gyroscopes were also sensitive enough to allow them to pick up some sound waves, turning them into crude microphones. And unlike the actual mics built into phones, there’s no way for users of the Android phones they tested to deny an app or website access to those sensors’ data.
Ever notice how apps you install want access to practically everything on your phone? And as app users the default answer given is often yes or accept. We hardly pay attention to these apps requests for our personal data on our phones. Much like Terms of Service agreements, which are often long drawn out 200 page documents, we quickly accept whatever they say because our prime desire on these impulse purchases or downloads is just to get the app and start using it. We could care less about what these apps require from us to work. All we want is the app, and we don’t even care what the needs from the company who designed these apps are. If they want access to our contacts that’s somehow OK. If they want access to our pictures, OK. If they want access to our microphones, OK. If they want access to other apps to work, OK. Whatever you want you can have, just give me the app so I can use it. However, according to these researchers we are giving away too much. And now the fact that the gyroscopes in the phones, which are often used for GPS tracking or getting us pointed in the right direction, can now be used to pick up whatever we are saying just seems like more of the same. If they want to know everything about us, it is somehow OK.
“Whenever you grant anyone access to sensors on a device, you’re going to have unintended consequences,” says Dan Boneh, a computer security professor at Stanford. “In this case the unintended consequence is that they can pick up not just phone vibrations, but air vibrations.”
Air vibrations? What else does these phone makers put into their phones that later will come back to haunt us? Of course we will never know until some researcher discloses it. But will it matter? Probably not, because all we want is for the phone to communicate and or give us what we are told we need to make our days more productive. We could care less about what it wants from us for that privilege. All we care about is talking to other people, playing games and using apps to help us be more productive. If the convenience turns out to be a privacy nightmare later on, oh well, too bad so sad, we won’t care, because by that time it will be too late to do anything about it. Better just get used to being tracked, listened to, and having all of our private data in the public view, or in this case the corporations view.
For now, the researchers’ gyroscope snooping trick is more clever than it is practical. It works just well enough to pick up a fraction of the words spoken near a phone. When the researchers tested their gyroscope snooping trick’s ability to pick up the numbers one through ten and the syllable “oh” — a simulation of what might be necessary to steal a credit card number, for instance — it could identify as many as 65 percent of digits spoken in the same room as the device by a single speaker. It could also identify the speaker’s gender with as much as 84 percent certainty. Or it could distinguish between five different speakers in a room with up to 65 percent certainty.
I am sure that while these methods are crude today, tomorrow they will be less crude, as software will be made to make it easier to identify speech, gender, and with voice recognition and facial recognition tools, easier to know who is on the other end of the phone. In the end, corporations, governments, and spies will all have easy access to everything about us no matter where we are or what we are doing. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Only you can be the judge on that.