53% Indians claim to have seen targeted-ads in last 12 months on web/apps based on their phone conversations
- ● Majority of those surveyed had given microphone access of their mobile phone to audio /video calls, social media and audio recording apps
July 8, 2021, New Delhi: It is true that internet-enabled technology such as smartphone has become an integral part of our lives, from managing our daily activities in a calendar, an app that tracks our steps and movements, to shopping, commuting, ordering food, etc. While technology has made our lives easier, it also poses great risk as we expose our personal data to cyber criminals or hackers who try numerous ways—phishing, malicious malware software, malicious mobile apps, smishing, insecure networks, etc—to get hold of user’s data, which is then put to misuse. So much so that there has been growing instances of many Indian users reporting that certain mobile apps are now listening to their phone conversations as they are presented with relevant ads thereafter.
There are many apps that ask user’s permission to access their microphone; however, users are not made aware for what reason their phone microphone is being used other than the service they require. There are several apps—for instance, a gaming app that requires users’ permission to access their microphone—which technically enables it to record a user’s conversation on phone or otherwise thereby violating privacy rights of the user. One can only hope that the much-awaited implementation of the Personal Data Protection Bill will put in place tight protection measures and protocols for companies gathering and sharing consumers’ data. The bill declares that users who provide data are, in effect, the owners of their data.
After receiving such consumer complaints for over 24 months, LocalCircles decided to conduct a survey to find out the magnitude of the issue of voice conversations leading to targeted ads. It also attempted to understand the aggregate percentage of users who have given microphone access to different apps. The survey received more than 17,000 responses from citizens residing in 307 districts of India. 62% of the respondents were men while 38% were women. 48% respondents were from tier 1, 27% from tier 2 and 25% respondents were from tier 3, 4 and rural districts.
53% of the citizens surveyed said they have had one or more instances in last 12 months where they saw advertisements on web/app based on their phone conversations
Over the last 2 years, LocalCircles has received hundred plus complaints from citizens about advertisements presented to them based on the content of their recent phone conversation. In community disucssions, citizens also discussed with each other similar instances they have experienced. In order to gauge the extent of the issue, LocalCircles in the following question in the survey asked citizens, “In the last 12 months, have you had experiences where after you spoke to someone on the phone about a particular product/service, when you went on website/apps afterwards you were presented with ads for such product/service?” In response, 28% said “yes, happens all the time,” 19% said “has happened several times”, and 6% said has “happened a few times”. Only 24% of citizens said that it has never happened, while 23% did not have an opinion. The findings of the poll suggest that 53% of citizens are seeing advertisements on web/app based on their phone conversations about products or services. This question in the survey received 8,291 responses.
Majority of Indians have given microphone access of their mobile phone to audio /video calls, social media and audio recording apps
There are reports which indicate that turning microphone off can help prevent apps from listening to your conversation. However, it is not a viable option for many apps as they require the microphone for speech to text, calling, voice recording, etc. Said that, users rarely go through the pain of turning microphone ‘on’ and ‘off’ only when they need it. This is primarily because users are not made aware of their phone microphones being used for anything other than the service they require or of information being stored.
The survey asked citizens if they have given access of their phone microphone to different apps. In response, 9% said “(1) to all apps,” (2) 18% said “apps used for audio and video call”, and 11% said “(3) apps used for social media, music, audio video recording”, and 4% have given the access to “(4) apps that assist in usage of phone via voice”. Breaking down the poll, 11% voted for “2 & 3” type of apps from the aforementioned options, 5% said “2 & 4”, while 13% voted for “2,3 & 4” options. There were only 11% of citizens who have not given phone’s microphone access to any apps, while 18% did not have an opinion. Based on aggregate responses, it is clear that indicate that majority of Indians have given microphone access of their mobile phones to audio/video calls, social media, and audio video recording apps. This question in the survey received 8,928 responses.
The majority of citizens in the survey accept to have given microphone access of their mobile phone to several apps, especially audio/video calling app, social media and audio recording apps. Off late, audio and video based social networks like Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse as well as video calling apps like Whatsapp, Skype, Zoom, Google Meet all require microphone access. One can only hope that any apps who have taken user’s consent to their phone’s microphone aren’t recording the verbal conversations and sharing them with 3rd parties. However, since 53% of those surveyed said, they are seeing advertisments on web/app based on their phone conversations about products/services, one has to assume that atleast some apps are engaging in such activities. The key for sites and apps that are using verbal conversations of users is to comply and ensure the usage is clearly defined in the terms and conditions of their app and the key for the Government is to ensure that if there is a breach reported or suo moto, take penal action against the violators.
It can be mentioned here that Governments from around the world are cracking down on companies that misuse people’s data. One of the most prominent laws that pertains to data collection is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) put in place by the EU in 2018. The Parliament of India is yet to approve the “Personal Data Protection Bill 2019” and the Joint Parliamentary Committee has been meeting with different stakeholders over the last 9 months. The Bill aims to provide legislative and statutory protection to users or citizens’ personal information and recognises protecting the data of individuals as their rights. This bill once approved will provide the due powers to a newly created Central Data Protection Authority to act against violators if personal data breach is established.
Citizens via LocalCircles had escalated various inputs on what constitutes private information to a common citizen along with penalties for data breach to the Government in 2017 and the same was used as a key input in the draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill. As the joint parliamentary committee conducts stakeholder consultations and the parliament debates the bill in the upcoming sessions, LocalCircles will share these recently received concerns for their consideration.
17,000+ responses were received from citizens residing in 307 districts of India. 62% of the respondents were men while 38% were women. 48% respondents were from tier 1, 27% from tier 2 and 25% respondents were from tier 3, 4 and rural districts. The survey was conducted via LocalCircles platform and all participants were validated citizens who had to be registered with LocalCircles to participate in this survey.