My iPhone may be spying on me after all, and I don’t trust my TV

Yonden Lhatoo may be a late convert, but he’s beginning to feel that people who cover cameras on their electronic devices with tape may be right after all

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 5:33am

I swear I don’t have my tinfoil hat on as I write this. I roll my eyes at conspiracy theories as much as the next sceptic, but maybe some of the paranoia going around is totally justified.

I ran out of a diet supplement recently and visited a random neighbourhood pharmacy to replenish my stock. The next day, I found myself bombarded with internet advertisements for the same product, even though I had not used any mobile or desktop device to look for it online.

Some of my tech-savvy friends, who have taken to covering the cameras on their mobile phones, laptops and TVs with masking tape, suggested right away that my iPhone was spying on me through some app manipulating its built-in camera and microphone.

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Yes, I know they’re not really suggesting anything new and there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence like this. But now that it’s actually happening to me, I’m beginning to see all those news reports about hacking and spying by everyone, from unscrupulous advertisers to the NSA and CIA, in a whole new light.

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We already know how the CIA has been able to break into Apple, Google and Microsoft consumer technology, compromising our not-so-smart phones, computers, TVs and cars.

And yet, so many of us prefer to turn a blind eye to it all. We pretend it’s not happening, or assume it can’t be that serious.

“It hasn’t happened to me,” is regular comfort food for denial. That’s how we tolerate every organised assault on our privacy, and rationalise our apathy and false sense of security.

I find Facebook, in particular, to be a worrying entity. Yeah, yeah, it connects nearly two billion people across the globe in a network of sugar and spice and all things nice, yada yada, but I’m talking about the Mr Hyde part, not Dr Jekyll.

Facebook is also a global surveillance empire which keeps an unparalleled database of every personal thought, feeling and detail that its subjects willingly surrender in the name of “sharing”.

In one particularly eyebrow-raising piece of news out this month, Facebook has filed a patent seeking to monitor users through their phone or web cameras. The idea, ostensibly, is to capture, identify and store users’ emotions gleaned from their facial expressions. The information can then be used for targeting content at people. For now.

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Another feature already allows the social networking giant to listen in on conversations through users’ phones, though purportedly only to encourage them to post what they are watching or talking about.

As for my own experience, there is an alternative theory that such seemingly remarkable coincidences are happening around us constantly; it’s just that we don’t pay enough attention.

We humans, by nature, are only alert to things that are immediately on our minds, and something related to them, like an advertisement, may suddenly stand out when it has actually been in the background the whole time.

But it’s also human nature to seek a rational explanation for everything, even if the truth may lie in the wild conspiracy theory.

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Whatever the case, I’ve started eyeing all the cameras and microphones on my electronic devices with deep suspicion these days. I no longer trust my TV, which is constantly tuned in to some 24-hour news channel.

As American writer Chuck Palahniuk put it, brushing aside George Orwell, “Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.”

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post