It’s the holiday season, and if you are like me and know anything about tech, you may be pelted with questions from your loved ones about all their burning tech issues.
So I figured I could help you out by answering some of the questions that I get asked most regularly. I would also like to invite you to send in additional questions to email@example.com. If I get enough questions, I will try to make this Q&A a regular feature.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Dear Julia: Is my cellphone listening to me? I often get ads related to things that I talked about but didn’t look up online, and it makes me think that my phone is sending data about my conversations to advertisers.
Dear Reader: I get this question all the time because it’s such a common experience. And yet there is no compelling evidence that marketers are using your audio to tailor their advertisements.
There have been many experiments over the years testing this hypothesis, and all of them have come up dry. The most comprehensive test—a study by Northeastern University researchers published in 2018—analyzed 17,260 Android apps and found that “no apps appeared to exfiltrate audio in our tests.”
“We didn’t find anything when we did that study, but it’s always possible something is happening now,” said study co-author Christo Wilson, associate professor of computer science. “Ideally, someone should be running continuous tests on apps to see if there is audio/video surveillance over time. That said, I think this threat model has become less likely over time, given that Android and iOS both have notifications that tell you, in real time, if the mic or camera is being accessed.”
To find out which apps have permission to access your microphone, you can check your privacy settings (Apple iOS instructions here and Google Android instructions here). Of course, apps could request access for one thing but use it for another, so Apple has an additional layer of auditing with a service called the App Privacy Report that provides a list of which apps accessed your location, camera, microphone, and other data in the past seven days, as well as when and for how long the app accessed it. You have to turn it on for it to start collecting that information, which is stored on the device.
Dear Julia: Is it risky to use TikTok because it is a Chinese app that could be sharing my personal information with the Chinese government?
Dear Reader: Like most apps, TikTok gobbles up information about its users. But unlike competing social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, it doesn’t have as much information about your personal network—who you are friends with, who you communicate directly with most frequently—which can be far more revealing than what videos you watch.
“The extent of the data that TikTok collects pales in comparison with American companies,” said Wall Street Journal China correspondent Liza Lin, whom I interviewed in last week’s newsletter about China’s extensive domestic surveillance regime.
Could the Chinese government access the data that TikTok collects? Sure, but that’s not the only way China can obtain information about people outside its borders. Hacked data about American citizens is easily available on the dark web. Northeastern professor Wilson adds, “There are dozens of data brokers who are happy to sell data on Americans to whoever is willing to pay. You can avoid TikTok if you like, but that doesn’t stop anyone from buying sensitive data on you.”
“I also find the anti-TikTok stuff to be Sinophobic,” Wilson added. “American tech companies are hoovering up data from people all over the world, and our government is not saintly.”
A bigger concern, according to both Lin and Wilson, is that TikTok may comply with the Chinese government’s censorship regime, which blocks dissent in China, or use its algorithm to promote propaganda. In 2019, TikTok blocked a video about the Uyghur community of Muslims, who are oppressed in China. The company then apologized and restored the video, saying it was the result of an error.
FBI director Chris Wray testified in Congress last month that the agency was concerned about “the possibility that the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.”
The U.S. government’s interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews national security risks of foreign acquisitions, has been working to craft an agreement with TikTok’s parent company to protect the data of the app’s 100 million U.S. users. If that deal goes through, your data might be even safer on TikTok than on other apps run by mercurial billionaires where there is currently no government oversight. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Twitter.)
Dear Julia: The Markup writes a lot about the Facebook tracking pixel. How do I block it from tracking me?
Dear Reader: The Facebook tracking pixel is a bit of computer code that is embedded on many websites across the internet. When you visit that website, it often sends Meta, Facebook’s parent company, a log of what you did on the site, such as clicking on a product or filling out a form.
The Facebook pixel can be blocked by software that you add to your web browser. Some examples are EFF’s Privacy Badger, Firefox’s Facebook Container, UBlock Origin, and DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Essentials. (DuckDuckGo is a donor to The Markup.)
It can be harder to block trackers when you browse the web from your smartphone, but some privacy-focused mobile web browsers—such as Brave and DuckDuckGo Private Browser—block third-party tracking, including the Facebook pixel.
As always, thanks for reading. I’m taking the holidays off but will be back in your inboxes on Jan. 7, 2023.
Happy New Year!