Never before in the history of humankind have people been so readily watched and monitored than the times we are living in right now. Every now and then, cases of government and private organizations snooping on citizens are either leaked or presented as a news story in the media to enlighten the public about the latest developments taking place around them. It isn’t our fault that we were born into this age, but it will definitely be our fault if we don’t take precautions to guard our privacy come what may. Users usually take the right measures to protect their mobile devices by not granting third party apps or websites permission to use their device’s salient features, including the microphone. This might not be enough to protect your phone’s data because researchers have found that a small sensor installed in the latest phones can listen to your conversations without asking for your permission first.
A few months back researchers from Stanford University and Israel’s defense research group Rafael presented a technique through which conversations taking place inside a room could be heard with a phone’s gyroscope, a device responsible for keeping the orientation of the phone intact. In fact, this device is responsible for many important processes taking place inside the phone. The mentioned researchers noted through experimentation that the gyroscope is sensitive enough to pick up some sound waves and it can be made to work like a basic microphone as well.
A similar kind of research was presented in 2011 by a group of Georgia Tech researchers who concluded that a smartphone could also identify keystrokes on nearby computers by reading the movement of the phone’s accelerometers.
For the time being, the gyroscope snooping mechanism is not seen as a real danger to privacy since only a small number of words spoken near a phone are clearly audible. The latest experiment conducted on a phone’s gyroscope by the Stanford University and Rafael researchers shows that the device could identify approximately 65 percent of digits spoken by an individual in a closed space. Further, the device is also capable of distinguishing between the voices of five different speakers present in the same room with up to 65 percent accuracy. Moreover, it can also identify a person’s gender with a success rate of 84 percent.
Dan Boneh, a computer security professor at Stanford University thinks that if more work is carried out on speech recognition algorithms, the eavesdropping technique could take the shape of a dangerous tool that could be used in many ways by the good and bad forces. Boneh said, “Whenever you grant access to sensors on a device, you’re going to have unintended consequences.” He further added, “In this case the unintended consequence is that they can pick up not just phone vibrations, but air vibrations.”
Boneh’s is also concerned about this device being used by rogue Android app developers who would be able to eavesdrop on a person at any given time of the day. This is why he has already warned Google and other tech giants to change their security system to deal with this threat on an official level.
Gyroscopes built into modern phones consist of a tiny vibrating plate placed on a chip. These tiny plates are also capable of picking up the frequency of minute air vibrations that in the case of Google’s Android operating system could be read at 200 hertz (200 times per second). Frequency of the human voice ranges between 80 to 250 hertz which makes it possible to record conversations on a smartphone.
Experts are also worried about a gyroscope being used by spy agencies to listen to random conversations or conversations taking place between high value individuals. Mobile manufacturers are also realizing this game and are making an effort to limit the frequency of access to the sensor so that the public wouldn’t raise hue and cry over the biting privacy issue in the electronic age.
For now, the issue related to a phone’s gyroscope being converted into an eavesdropping device is not very perplexing as there are many ways in which people can restrict the device and put a lid on their private affairs. Nevertheless, experts and citizens should always be on the lookout for these kinds of developments to be better equipped to handle their affairs independently.