I grew up, like many of our older readers did, with a “party line.”
Nope, nothing “party” about it, because if you had a few old women as part of your “party line,” well, you were doomed!
I don’t know how many residential lines were part of our “party line” in Loango at the time, and I don’t remember those old women’s names who were the dominant voices.
I do know that using the dial-up phone to call anyone was a challenge. Sometimes it took telling Edna (seems like that was one of their names) you had to use the phone. That raised all sorts of indignation, no cussing, but good ol’ fussing--and then some.
Finally, they’d give up the phone, but you’d hear one or both pick up sporadically to see if my family was through with their conversation. Often, they “hung in” for our call, apparently enjoying our conversation, logging what was being said in their beady little minds so they could enjoy a recap later after we’d finished our conversation.
I was too young for any girl-calling at the time, that progressed when we moved to River Falls at the age of 10. Well, several years afterwards, when I figured out girls were someone I needed to talk to.
We had a “private line” in River Falls! No more “party lines” to share--or air--any type laundry you may want to discuss.
Now, however, I’ve learned, from an article from computer science professors Ragib Hasan and Nitesh Saxena at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, my dadgum cell phone may be listening to me--and everyone else I’m talking with--if I’m involved in a “sensitive conversation.” Not counting Alexa. (So far, the most entertaining thing about Alexa I’ve found, when she’s not telling me “that information is not available right now,” is listening to our grandsons, Thad, 5, and Crosby, 2, ask her questions. Sadly, they fare no better than I do.)
Those professors tell me it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off,.
The threat is not just from smart speakers--the first spies to be reported on in the internet of things.
Another idea is that Alexa--my youngest son, Chance, got me one for Christmas so that I could ask it the questions I’m always seeming to ask him (I still call him, thank you)--can be bugging your home is among the most obvious of the problems out there.
“Here, the user has installed a device in his home or office, and this device has a microphone that receives and understands users’ vocal commands,” says Nitesh Saxena of the UAB Department of Computer Science. “Ideally, the speaker system should wake up only when the user issues a wake phrase like ‘OK, Google,’ but there is nothing that prevents it from recording the audio at will on regular user conversations. Also, it is likely that, as the speaker listens to our commands, which are often stored on the cloud servers of these companies, the audio could contain sensitive information spoken in the background--music and TV programs played in the background--that may be of interest to some malicious actors.”
Far more pervasive than smart speakers are smart phones and tablet devices, and the threats proliferate as well, say the professors.
UAB writer Yvonne Taunton explained that the smart devices of today are equipped with many different types of sensors that may be listening in on our conversations--sensors such as “accelerometers, GPS, gyroscopes and more.
Besides what they’re supposed to do (an accelerometer is supposed to tell your phone where it is in space), they can also track you like a gumshoe.
Hasan said, “In reality, we have threats from two directions--malicious apps that hijack the phone sensors to spy on us, and otherwise benign apps secretly listening to or sensing our activities, and then sending the data ‘home’ for advertising and other activities.”
Making it even worse--yes, it can get there--are what Taunton calls side channel attacks in which a malicious app can exploit benign-looking resources, creating what she calls “bad actors.”
Consequences of such “bad actors” could be:
• Stealing your PIN code based on vibrations of your finger taps;
• Mimicking your voice characteristics from listening to you (This I’d like to hear, because as my family and friends tell me, my voice is one in a million!);
• Tracking your car from vibrations from your phone in the vehicle; and
• Tracking your car from variation in cell tower transmissions.
Now the professors tells me, I’ve got to be careful about what permissions I give to the apps I install. That’s the first thing I need to do, but it’s no sure bet, and there are ways around it.
I’ve got to figure out now how to disable apps from recording and maintaining users’ location history--Google Maps, Facebook, so the professors tell me.
And yes, pray tell, where do I go about doing all this?
No, I no longer have a teenager in the house who can tell me how to do everything. Yes, Alexa sits beside me on my table at home, but she’s not to be trusted.
“For sensitive conversations, it might be a good idea to put your phone away or turn it off,” the UAB professors tell me.
Yep, I can do that. Boy howdy, do I miss Edna. At least I could usually hear her whenever she picked up to listen in.