Ahmad ElAmine


Is The Internet Spying On Us?

This Is How The Internet Spied On Me And Is Possibly Spying On You Too

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

It is very creepy to realize that someone is following you everywhere and knows everything you’re doing. It is even worse when you are the one who implicitly — if not explicitly — allow that person to watch you and keep an eye of every detail in your life.

I don’t wanna even think of it. Just having the idea that someone is watching me freaks me out! But what if it’s actually true? Or what if this “someone” is the internet?

Let’s be honest! We all know that our information is nowadays insecure. There are millions of apps and websites out there and all of them at least know our names, nationalities, birth of dates (BODs) and gender. In addition, some behind the scene information is known to them: your IP address and (approximate) location. (I’m sure there are other things that I am unaware of)

You don’t believe me? Then try this with me: go to Google and type ‘my ip and location’ in the search box and press enter. I got the following results at the top, you might get others but no problem all will work.

I tried the first link but it only showed my IP address, so I tried the second one as it says ‘IP Location Finder — Geolocation’, and … ta-da!

Screenshot from www.iplocation.net

As you can see, the link provided me with my IP and my approximate location from 3 different sources. Additionally, information about my internet service provider (ISP) is also available.

Now you believe me when I said that our information is insecure. Yes, apparently the internet knows everything about us. And we’re constantly letting it know more.

The fact that the IP address is known is not new to most of you I believe. The problem doesn’t only lie here. The problem arises as we constantly feed the internet with our personal and private information without knowing the consequences of it.

Let me share with you something that I experienced, not a long time ago

I was searching and viewing some items online on AliExpress app on my smartphone.

Here’s the list of what I was checking:

  1. cover for my smartphone
  2. stylus for my laptop’s touch screen
  3. smart watches
  4. thermos coffee mug

I saved some of the items that liked in my wishlist to check them out later and possibly make a purchase.

Later during the day, or maybe the next day (I can’t recall exactly), I was checking my Instagram account as I usually do. Scrolling down through my feed I saw something that I couldn’t believe: A sponsored post from AliExpress, showing the exact same items that I have viewed on the app, together with some other items that I didn’t, appeared in my feed.

AliExpress’ sponsored post that appeared on my Instagram feed (5/10 of the items are items that I have viewed)

No way! I was simply shocked, honestly. It seemed like they were just sitting with me, watching what I was searching for on their platform and then decided to advertise them for me on Instagram, possibly to encourage me to go ahead and do a purchase.

I could’t understand how this happened; neither there is a link (at all) between my AliExpress account and my Instagram nor I am following them on Instagram. So how they were able to take the information from their app and thereafter advertise the items for me on Instagram? I don’t know!

The story continues …

The days passed, I stopped checking AliExpress app and subsequently all sponsored posts from AliExpress eventually disappeared.

Few weeks later, I have decided to go on the Amazon app and check the prices of some tablets and laptops to compare them with their prices if I would by them locally from any electronics shop.

Do you want me to continue or would you like to guess what happened next? Yup, you guessed that right!

Exactly what happened with AliExpress, happened again with Amazon. They were able to readily show up sponsored posts on my Instagram feed with exactly the same items that I have viewed on their app. Amazon was more accurate with its advertisement as they showed only the items that I viewed on the app — nothing that I didn’t view.

Amazon’s sponsored post that appeared on my Instagram feed (10/10 of the items are items that I have viewed)

Similarly, my Instagram and Amazon accounts have no link at all, and I am not following Amazon’s Instagram account.

So an open-ended arises on how did Instagram use my information and see my usage of AliExpress and Amazon apps and thus, show me sponsored posts on my feed?

I’m sure that if I use other social media apps then I will also get these advertisements on those apps. I assure you.

Stories from other people that they are being spied on

Before I experience all of this with Instagram, AliExpress and Amazon, I have come across several online articles and videos of people claiming that Facebook is eavesdropping on them by recording everything they say through the phone’s microphone.

Therefore, when I experienced similar creepy feeling, I have decided to do some research about this and present to you my findings.

Here are just a couple of examples of people who had such an experience with Facebook. Others had the same experience with Twitter, Google, Instagram and YouTube.

I have noticed, however, that most of the people had such a creepy experience with Facebook.

So, are these tech giants really listening to our conversations? Or is it just a coincidence? Or is there some other scientific or technical reason for how this is happening?

“They (tech companies) know such a scary amount about you that they’re able to guess at the topics that you’re thinking about even without listening in on your verbal conversations. People underestimate the degree to which their online activities are being monitored”
— John Pracejus, the Director of the School of Retailing, University of Alberta. Source: Globalnews CA

Pracejus is definitely right. People do disregard the amount of information they share out there on the internet. Even though most of the time people know that this information is being collected by those tech giants.

Common, can you imagine with me the amount of information Google and Facebook has? Not forgetting to mention that Google owns YouTube, and Facebook own Instagram and WhatsApp (and I’m sure they own more than I actually know). Can you also tell me how private is the information that they have collected? The irony is that we are the ones who voluntarily share all of our information without taking any precautions and without leaving some privacy for ourselves.

Pracejus, however, doesn’t deny the idea that these tech companies might actually be listening to us, indeed. He says:

“Another possibility of course is that they are, in fact, listening to you. And there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any reason that they couldn’t do that. And I’m unaware of any reason that would prevent them from doing that. At least any legal or regulatory reasons.”

According to an online statement by Facebook posted in June 2016, the company claims that it does not use the phone’s microphone for targeting ads to its users. Facebook says that it only uses the microphone if the user has granted the app a permission to do so while actively using a feature that requires audio recording.

An Experiment by Carl Nasman - DW News English

My opinion regarding the conspiracy theorem

After all the research that I have done, I concluded the following:

  • The tech giants are indeed eavesdropping on us, but I don’t think that this its actually through our phone’s microphone. This hypothesis could not be true because processing voice data of over a billion people is a very expensive operation. Even if the companies are able of performing such expensive processing, our phones can’t. What I want to say is that, if the social media apps would constantly upload our voice data to their servers then we should observe that our internet usage meter never shows 0 bps when idle. Moreover, our phone’s battery will drain much faster than it would normally do if this is happening.
  • Nevertheless, I don’t completely deny the fact that the microphones are constantly listening to us. I know I might be contradicting myself, but now you’ll see what I mean. Let’s take Google Assistant as an example. Assume that you opened Google Assistant, asked it about the weather and it answered you. Now it is not waiting for any response from you. Try saying “hi/hello/hey Google” and see what happens. Google Assistant will immediately pick up this phrase and show you a screen asking you if you would like to enable the “Access your Assistant with Voice Match” feature (if not enabled yet), and it will give you some details regarding that (see below screenshot). Two important observations: (a) the Assistant picked up what you said although it wasn’t waiting for you to say anything (b) if you enable the feature, then Google will be able to pick up anything you would say (and recognize and differentiate your voice from others) even if the Assistant is not opened. This is really creepy and dangerous. I assume Cortana, Alexa and Siri work in a similar manner, so be careful to what you grant permission. However, it is important to note that such processing would be different than processing you voice for targeting ads.
Google Assistant screenshot from my phone
  • Remember that when you install any app on your phone, you are granting it permission to do lots of stuff from taking pictures and videos to recording audio, from reading and modifying your calendar to reading and modifying your contacts, from reading your approximate location to accessing your storage with authorization to read and modify your data, and much more other permissions that most of us don’t even care to check before granting them. Furthermore, we are somehow forced to give the apps access to what they want or else we won’t be able to use them.
Screenshot of Facebook app permissions from Google Play
  • When we use apps and browse websites, cookies are saved on our smartphones. Then, other apps are able to read these cookies, analyze them and thus show us ads related to our preferences. Not forgetting that every click, comment and search are taken into account to target ads at us. Moreover, our friends preferences, especially the ones that we usually get in touch with most, are also considered important information to be used to know more about us. That’s why most of the time the companies show us ads related to us with a very high accuracy.

Wrap up

The internet is now accounted as an important integrated part in our lives. So, saying that we don’t want to use the internet anymore is far from possible. It’s ok to use the internet and the social media but it is important to know how to use them. We should reconsider the amount private information we are providing all these companies. These companies don’t give us their services for free, they are in fact selling us the services with something more valuable than money, that is, our information. Therefore, it very important to be wise while using any online website, service or social media. Stay safe!

I hope you enjoyed reading. I’d like to hear from you if you had any similar experience or feel that you are being monitored. Don’t forget to follow me on Medium Ahmad ElAmine for more and you can also connect with me on LinkedIn. Perhaps also leaving a comment, suggestion or anything that you would like to say would be great.

About the Author

I’m a Computer and Communications Engineer with research interest in wireless communications, resource allocation, game theory, optimization, antenna design, and cognitive radio. I love programming too and like to combine my expertise in programming to solve problems related to my research.

More by Ahmad ElAmine

Topics of interest