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Published: March 23rd, 2020

Last year’s FaceTime software defect triggered a much bigger question about the existence of widespread invasion of privacy enabled by iPhones. Many wanted to know how much of their conversations were being recorded and relayed by various iPhone apps to the publishers of those apps.

You may recall that the FaceTime software defect lets you call anyone and immediately hear the audio being captured by their microphone. You could hear the audio before the person on the other end had even accepted or rejected your incoming call. Until the software defect was resolved by Apple, this snooping was feasible on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

How difficult is it for someone to snoop on my iPhone?

I heard about Jeff Bezos having his iPhone X hacked. Can that happen to me?
While it’s obviously possible, it’s technically quite demanding and therefore costly. So, unless you’re a high-profile celebrity or a golfing buddy of someone like Jeff Bezos or Michael Bloomberg, your risk of that kind of attack is very low.
You can significantly reduce the risk of introducing malware into your iPhone and iPad that could snoop on you by diligently following the advice you’ve heard before:

  1. Only click on links when you’re sure you know where the link came from.
  2. Only open email or messages from senders you know.
  3. Only right click on email attachments from senders you know.
  4. Only install apps from the App Store and not from anywhere else.
  5. Only install apps from publishers that you know and trust.
  6. Only surf websites that display the little lock in the address line indicating use of https encryption.

Is Apple snooping on me?

I think I trust Apple. After all, Apple was one of the few vendors that pushed back against court orders issued to the FBI in defence of customer privacy. Is there any reason not to trust Apple?

Apple recently replied to a US Congressional letter requesting information about how it handles customer data. While being clear to differentiate itself from other companies, Apple made these statements:

  1. When we do collect data, we’re transparent about it.
  2. We work to disassociate data from customer identification.
  3. We utilize on-device processing to minimize data collection by Apple.

Of course, Apple, just like many other companies, collects data on customer activity to improve its products and services.
If you find this description of Apple’s approach to customer privacy insufficient, consider if changing to another smartphone vendor will provide you with greater protection or not.

Is Siri snooping on me?

I understand that for Siri to respond to “Hey, Siri”, the Siri app must be listening to everything I say. Should I worry about that?
There’s no indication that Siri records or transmits what you’re saying until you ask Siri something. However, in our conspiracy theory-prone world, Apple’s assurances haven’t stopped some from claiming otherwise.
If you don’t want Siri to listen all the time, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap Siri & Search.
  3. Next to Listen for “Hey, Siri”, toggle the switch to OFF.
  4. Next to Press Home for Siri, toggle the switch to ON.

You can still activate Siri by pressing the Side button or pressing the Home button depending on the iPhone model you’re using.
You can also limit how Siri interacts with your various apps by changing the app-specific default settings that are normally switched to ON in the Siri & Search menu.
If you’re still nervous, you can lock down Siri entirely by following these steps:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap Siri & Search.
  3. Next to Listen for “Hey, Siri”, toggle the switch to OFF.
  4. Next to Press Home for Siri, make sure the switch is OFF.

Even with these settings, Siri will sometimes insinuate itself and ask to be turned on if you press and hold Home.

Can I reduce the risk of my iPhone snooping on me further?

These points to reduce risk are not enough for me. What else can I do?
iOS requires all apps to explicitly request permission to use your microphone and lists those apps that have requested access. You can review these apps and disable access as follows:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap Privacy.
  3. Tap Microphone.
  4. You’ll see a list of apps that have requested access to the microphone.
  5. Toggle the switch to OFF next to any app for which you want to revoke access.

How can I detect a bug on my iPhone?

I know that Apple is proud of how it certifies apps before making them available in the App Store. However, can’t someone sneak an app into the App Store or directly onto my iPhone that is a listening app or bug?
Sneaking such a malicious app onto your iPhone is possible even though it requires a lot of technical expertise. Here are some of the indicators that your iPhone contains such a bug:

  1. Your battery is losing its charge quite quickly even when you’re not using your iPhone because the bug is consuming it while shipping your data to its controller.
  2. You observe multiple, random, unexplained screen flashes. Flashes are a common indicator of a software defect in an app or a bug. If the flashes persist on your Home screen after a reboot when no apps are supposed to be running, you likely have a bug.
  3. If the data usage on your monthly iPhone bill or under Settings, tap Cellular is much higher than your actual usage, you likely have a bug.

If the bug is clever enough to transmit only when you’re connected to Wi-Fi, iOS doesn’t offer a built-in way to see Wi-Fi data usage the way Android does. You can choose to install an iOS app to track Wi-Fi data usage. However, the problem with these apps is that they consume quite a bit of your battery.

Can I use my iPhone to eavesdrop on a conversation?

You can use your iPhone and AirPods, when they’re within Bluetooth range, to eavesdrop on a conversation. Tap Start Live Listen feature that’s available in the Hearing menu under Settings. Live Listen will stream whatever the iPhone microphone is hearing to your AirPods.
Instead of AirPods, you can also eavesdrop with your hearing aids. Here’s how:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap Accessibility.
  3. Tap Hearing Devices.
  4. Tap on the name of your hearing device.
  5. Tap Start Live Listen.

You can also use the Voice Memos app on your iPhone to record a conversation.

What strategies would you recommend that can reduce snooping on iPhone conversations? Let us know in the comments below.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada