Are food delivery apps listening to you? Chinese users think their apps are spying on them
Suspicious users are pointing the finger at Ele.me and Meituan, but is it any different to the paranoia over Facebook and Google in the West?
Some people seem convinced that their smartphone apps are eavesdropping on their conversations… even when these conversations are about something as boring as food.
Between November 2018 and March 2019, IT Times simulated conversations about food in the presence of phones that had two big food delivery apps installed: Alibaba-owned Ele.me and Meituan.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
Reporters tested both Android and iPhone handsets and found that the probability of getting relevant app recommendations was as high as 60-70%. For instance, two reporters noticed that after chatting about eating Japanese food, the app would “suddenly“ suggest a Japanese restaurant.
The evidence may be somewhat tenuous, but it ties into a common fear that smartphone users around the world have had for some time now.
Ele.me and Meituan have also denied such claims, with Ele.me saying that their app doesn’t have the capability at all. Meituan said that their app only uses microphones when users authorize and actively initiate voice input in the app.
So is this just an urban legend?
Some experts aren’t so sure. Song Yuhao, who works as a security researcher for Chinese white hat company GeekPwn, said in the report that if an app has access to the microphone, in theory, it can listen in to conversations.
“Technically, it's easy to do it. The problem with audio upload traffic does not exist because the app can convert speech to text locally and then upload it,” GeekPwn told Abacus. But they also noted that just because it’s technically possible, it doesn’t mean it’s actually happening.
It’s also difficult to replicate their results, because food delivery apps tend to customize recommendations based on various factors, like age, location and order history.
Still, the suspicion remains. Many Chinese social media users claim that they had similar experiences, including with ecommerce apps like Taobao or news aggregation apps like Jinri Toutiao.
Just as skepticism towards Facebook continues to exist, it doesn’t look like suspicion towards apps that collect data to make recommendations is likely to slow down any time soon.