Is the Phone Spying on Me?
Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Mom thinks that phones can spy on her and won’t use her iPhone for QR codes and other useful stuff. She says that the phone broadcasts her location and listens through the microphone. Her basic MO is that the phone is spying on her. But she leads a hum-drum life and I don’t see a reason for her to be so paranoid. I have gone through the settings on her phone and turned off the sharing features. Is there anything I can do to allay her concerns about privacy? Lam T.
Dear Lam T: Many people share your mother’s digital anxiety and a little cyber education might go a long way. She is correct, as many apps on the iPhone (and Android) phones have the potential to access the microphone and camera. But she also has the controls to manage this. They happen to be colorful too!
So, with cyber- education in mind, introduce your mother to the visual reminders that are native to her iPhone. The “color wheel” (as I call it) might give her confidence to know that she has opted out of sharing her camera and microphone, and more. She will see in real time if an app is accessing her information.
Green dots at the top of the iPhone screen, are tiny- but useful. They appear when the IPhone’s camera and/or microphone is being accessed. Tell her to look for a green dot the next time she takes a picture or scans a document. That includes using the camera for those growing number of QR codes. Recording videos also get a green dot, useful to know if you and Mom stay in touch through FaceTime or other video chatting apps. Of course, Mom could disable access to the camera or microphone, but then she would not be able to take pictures or use the video.
Orange dots appear at the top of the screen when the microphone is being used. Again, they are fairly innocuous and and easily overlooked. The orange dot shows up when you make a call, check voicemail, or use an app for voice chat.
More recently, iPhones have begun to show blue, green, and red oval shapes- found in the left top corner of the screen. These oval shapes are “status bars” with real-time information. The blue oval shape says that screen sharing is taking place- say if Mom is sharing a session with tech support. The blue oval also appears during screen mirroring, like sending photos to a TV screen, or if an app is using location services.
More colors: The red status bar indicates that the screen and or microphone are being recorded and the green status bar says simply, a voice call is being made, hence activating the microphone. It’s that simple: blue, red and green. Power users get a purple status bar indicating that they are sharing some of their content, similar to AirDrop, with nearby phones.
The next step, to make Mom fully at ease with the privacy settings, is to demonstrate that when she clicks on these status bars, they will open the app or prompt a pop-up about the app in use. It sounds like you have already taken the necessary steps in the iPhone settings to evaluate each app and whether it needs access to her camera, microphone, and location services.
When it comes to location tracking- there is an exception. Instead of using a color to indicate that location services is turned on, the iPhone uses a little right facing arrowhead, like >. All phones broadcast their spatial coordinates to a nearby cell phone tower. But unless the location services and then tracking options are opted in then there is no further sharing and the phone does not display the location icon. Meanwhile Bluetooth, a built-in short-range feature for sharing, often seems to turn itself on by default on both iPhone and Android devices. There doesn’t seem to be a colorful icon or reminder when it is in use.
While the “color wheel” is specific to the iPhone, Android phones have similar tools to indicate when the microphone, camera, and location data are being accessed. It’s a good habit, whichever device you choose to get in the habit of re-checking the permissions from time-to-time. When you install a new app the default settings will often default to permissions to allow notifications, location services, the microphone and camera. So, like a (colorful) garden that has to be occasionally pruned, we should get acquainted with weeding it down to allay concerns that indeed “the phone is spying on me.”