The Surprising Ways Big Tech Spies on You

Update: A new website called Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (https://tosdr.org/) is a great resource for quick summaries of apps’ terms of service. Check it out to find the TOS ratings and what they mean of nearly every app you use.

Many of the companies dubbed ‘Big Tech’- Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, are constantly in the news due to their privacy and data policies. These companies are now under fire from advocacy groups and policy makers alike for not doing enough to protect their users’ data. This is a fact that many of us have not only accepted, but actively joke about. It is the reason many of these large tech companies are some of the most valuable in the world now.

It is hard to avoid Big Tech in our daily lives; from the time we wake up until we go to sleep we are (literally) farmed for data by these companies. Sometimes it’s as simple as using your search history to personally tailor advertisements. However, there are sneakier, and arguably more devious, methods Big Tech uses to extract our valuable personal data.

Why Are Smart TV’s So Cheap?

If you have bought a TV recently, the price might have surprised you. Not because it was expensive, but because of how cheap it is. Below is a graph showing the price of 4K televisions. In 2012, when the technology was just emerging, a 60″ would cost nearly $10,000. By 2017, that price fell to just about $1,000, and continued to fall even after that.

The dramatic fall in the price of 4K TVs over a 5 year period.
The dramatic fall in the price of 4K TVs over a 5 year period.

What caused this? For one, as technology gets better and more accessible, it becomes cheaper. However, it should be noted that almost every TV being sold today is a “Smart TV”. A Smart TV, simply put, is a TV that you can download Apps and Programs on. Convenient, but why would manufacturers add features while the price continues to drop? Data.

According to a study by Princeton and the University of Chicago, nearly all of the “channels” set up in Rokus, Amazon Fires, and other Smart TVs, were sending tracking data to Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other Big Tech companies.[1] Even more surprising is that these devices would send data to Netflix, even when the user has no Netflix account. This is not unique to one brand- Samsung, LG, and others are all guilty.

If you are worried about this, could you just watch cable without having your data tracked? The answer is no- this is tracked and sent to the manufacturer as well. You are no longer just watching TV, the TV is also watching you.[2] All of this you agree to in the Terms and Conditions when first buying the TV.

The ever-spying “TV Walls” from Fahrenheit 451 are no longer Science Fiction.

Spotify Exploits Your Good and Bad Moods

Have you ever been in a terrible mood, and decided to blast music all day to feel better? If you use Spotify for your Taylor Swift song marathon or early 2000s emo jam session, then they know exactly what your moods are. They will tailor more artists and advertisements in order to match your specific mood.

The same goes for opposite emotions- when you are in an upbeat and happy mood, Spotify will try to match this as well. Their entire goal is to keep the user plugged in.[3] Essentially, Spotify will likely know the exact mood you are in. The more you listen to music, the more accurate their data becomes. This doesn’t seem to bad at face value- however Spotify, like much of Big Tech, doesn’t utilize massive data harvesting for their users’ benefit.

If you connect your Spotify account to Facebook, they are able to see and analyze your contacts, friends, photos, and even your location[4] This was all unveiled in Spotify’s privacy policy from 2018, which most users likely agreed to. What does Spotify use this data for? They never say, but they certainly keep it. While there is no proof that anything malicious is happening, leaks happen. As we have seen from previous hacks, having large amounts of sensitive, personal data on hand is dangerous.

Yes, Alexa Listens To You Too

It shouldn’t be come as a surprise, but devices like Alexa, Google Home, and other Big Tech home devices are indeed listening and recording your voice commands. According to Amazon, Alexa stores and analyzes all data after its activation word is said. Put simply, anything you say after “Hey Alexa” is recorded, sent to Amazon, and kept in an archive.[5] You can even listen to your own Amazon archive here. We would never willingly invite strangers to listen to our conversations, however we have been so open inviting devices like Alexa into our home. Why?

For many, the convenience of a voice activated assistant is too great to pass up. It is slick using your voice to activate devices, change channels and music, and even add items to a grocery list. However, we need to think about the implications of having an ever-listening speaker in our home. Private conversations, business negotiations, as well as other sentences not meant for Alexa are now up for grabs. If you own one of these devices, I encourage you to check out the archives and see how much “non-Alexa” talk is actually captured.

Apple’s False Advertising Campaign

Apple's campaign is the latest data damage control from Big Tech
Apple’s campaign is the latest data damage control from Big Tech

A few years back, Apple launched a large advertising campaign where they touted the privacy benefits of the iPhone. The company claimed that “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone”.[6] However, after investigation it seems that this isn’t as true as you may think. The Wall Street Journal discovered that after some digging, the phone itself is not sending that much personal data to Apple or other third parties. However, many of the iOS 8 default Apps are. The tracking was essentially hidden in Apple’s recommended Apps. What data is being tracked?

For starters the name, model number, and your phone number are all tracked. However, it goes even further, with your email address, IP address of your current connection, and even your current location are all up for grabs. This isn’t a case of the Maps app tracking your location, either. These are apps that are essentially not dependent on location at all, still tracking your location. Why? Because it is extremely valuable data!

As an iPhone owner, how can you stop this from happening? There are a few options you can take to curb some of the spying. First, you can:

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Navigate to Privacy
  3. Tap Advertising
  4. Enable the Limited Ad Tracking function.

This above process will limit the background data that advertisers will be able to get their hands on. Additionally, you can disable the Background App Refresh function, which is found in the General Settings. From here you can choose which apps should not automatically refresh. Ideally, the apps you do not use often should be chosen.

Conclusion

These are only a few of the almost endless ways Big Tech is spying on us on a daily basis. Keep in mind that the point of this article is not to encourage some massive tech rebellion, to throw away your smartphones and laptops and return to an age before technology. The point of this piece is to inform, and make sure consumers are aware of how their data is being used. We are very quick to accept the Terms and Conditions, but no one actually reads them.

Remember, often times you are not just the consumer, but to Big Tech you are also the product. Your data is valuable, and knowing where it is being sent, how it’s being recorded, and who can view it can save you a lot of headache down the line.

Article Sources

  1. tomsguide.com “https://www.tomsguide.com/news/new-studies-reveal-how-smart-tvs-spy-on-you
  2. washingtonpost.com “https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/09/18/you-watch-tv-your-tv-watches-back/
  3. bigthink.com “https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/is-spotify-spying-on-you?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3
  4. vice.com “https://www.vice.com/en/article/jp48a7/spotify-is-spying-on-your-facebook-photos-contacts-and-gps-location
  5. washingtonpost.com “https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/
  6. forbes.com “https://www.forbes.com/sites/daveywinder/2019/06/02/your-iphone-is-spying-on-you-heres-how-to-stop-it/?sh=c51030812ddc

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