Do Chinese phone apps secretly listen to you? Industry insiders doubt it

Several popular Chinese shopping, instant messaging & short video apps are seen as possible culprits for secretly recording & misusing

Do Chinese phone apps secretly listen to you? Industry insiders doubt it
By Huang Lanlan and Lin Xiaoyi

The popular conspiracy theory that mobile phones are secretly listening to our conversations is probably false, Chinese technology industry insiders told the Global Times. Posts sharing personal experiences about being “monitored” by smartphones are frequently seen in the Chinese media. China unveiled a draft of the country’s first-ever Personal Information Protection Law last October, which raised people’s awareness of privacy protection. Xiao is one of the users who is convinced that her private conversations are tapped by her phone. Xiao once encountered a friend’s parent who asked about the university she graduated from, and two hours later – as Xiao recalled – she saw ads for the university’s classes on Xianyu, a trading app under Alibaba. Xiao told her friends, many of whom said they had similar experiences. “[We must be] monitored,” she told the Global Times. “There are no other plausible explanations.” Several popular Chinese shopping, instant messaging and short video apps are seen as possible culprits for secretly recording and misusing their conversations. “One day my wife said she wanted to eat Kung Pao Chicken. After a while the app pushed the dish’s cooking videos to me,” a user wrote on Weibo.

But there is no need to be overly worried about being “monitored,” Chinese app firm employees and information security specialists told the Global Times, saying there is no proof for the assumption. From a technical perspective, knowing about users’ interests and preferences through monitoring their conversations is not that effective compared to other legal means, said Li Dongdong (pseudonym), a technician who works at tech giant ByteDance, which owns TikTok and its Chinese domestic version Douyin. Li pointed out that currently, the algorithm technology for automatic speech recognition is still in its early development stage, and that coupled with the poor sound from surreptitious recordings would make it difficult to pinpoint valuable content from users’ daily chats. This is echoed by a Shanghai-based information security specialist who preferred to be called Alan. “It would need a lot of back-end operating and computing,” said Alan, who has worked with major Chinese phone makers including Xiaomi and VIVO.

More importantly, the interests of companies and users are aligned in terms of privacy protection, Li said. “If such a scandal were to come to light, the negative effects, including users leaving and large fluctuations in stock prices, could cripple a company,” he told the Global Times. China’s Cyber Security Law clearly stipulates that network operators should follow the principles of legality, justice and necessity in collecting and using personal information in a public way. Furthermore, an app undergoes strict review and testing before becoming available on app stores, Li said. “App developers surely can’t do whatever they want,” he added. A possible explanation for the sense of being monitored, Alan said, is that apps target advertising based on their user portraits, which are created through the information that users have permitted them to access, such as their contact lists, locations and photos. In Xiao’s case, for instance, her phone and apps may have long known the university she graduated from, and happened to push her the ads after a related conversation took place, Alan said.

This news was originally published at Global Time’s