“Samsung has taken spying on their customers to a whole new level”

Computer Rescue

Earlier this month, The Sun Online broke exclusive news that Samsung smartphones are capable of spying on users to track what they read and watch while they are using the internet. This “spy mode” is activated in response to a beacon that’s embedded in web pages and online advertisements.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Right Group, told The Sun Online that “Samsung wants to get to know you – but they are behaving like a peeping Tom”.

“Samsung has taken spying on their customers to a whole new level,” continued Killock. “What you can’t see, and can’t hear, won’t worry you — or so it hopes. It needs to own up and switch it off before their customers wise up and ditch them.”

The most worrying aspect of this news is that it’s all laid out rather directly in Samsung’s privacy policy; but, it is still vague at times, especially when it comes to which third parties in addition to Samsung will have access to the gathered information:

“We, along with certain third parties, also may use technologies called beacons (or “pixels”) that communicate information from your device to a server. Beacons can be embedded in online content, videos, and emails, and can allow a server to read certain types of information from your device, know when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message, determine the time and date on which you viewed the beacon, and the IP address of your device. We and certain third parties use beacons for a variety of purposes, including to analyze the use of our Services and (in conjunction with cookies) to provide content and ads that are more relevant to you.

By accessing and using our Services, you consent to the storage of cookies, other local storage technologies, beacons, and other information on your devices”

So, as you can see, if you own and use a Samsung smartphone, you’ve likely already agreed to the use of beacons when you agreed to the privacy policy; and if you don’t agree, it’s not like you have much of a choice. There’s no option to opt-out, so if you don’t want beacons tracking you on the internet, you’ll have to find another provider that doesn’t use them.

That may not be so easy though. One of Samsung’s biggest competitors, Apple, has also stated their use of beacons (or in their case, “pixel tags”) to track user activity on websites, online services, interactive apps, emails and advertisements. However, they differ from Samsung in that they claim to not share the user’s IP address with third parties.

As bad as beacons sound, it should be noted that the expressed use for beacons isn’t all that insidious. As explained in the privacy policy, beacons are primarily used to optimize advertising and content delivery.

“Beaconing is an inconspicuous way of marketing – and apps have increasingly incorporated ultrasonic tones to monitor consumers,” explained Tristan Liverpool, Director of Systems Engineering, F5 Networks to The Sun. “They ask permission to access your smartphone microphone, then listen for inaudible ‘beacons’ that come from retail stores, advertisements and even websites. If you’re not paying attention to the permissions you grant, you could be feeding marketers and other entities information about your online browsing, what stores you go to and your product preferences without realising it. Smartphone manufacturers can use this method as another way to promote their devices, and as another revenue stream by taking a percentage of any new business generated for retailers.”

When asked about beacons, Samsung reassured users, telling The Sun Online that it “takes consumer privacy very seriously, and our products are designed with privacy in mind”.

“We would like to assure our customers that ultrasonic beacon technology is not embedded on Samsung mobile devices,” continued a representative from Samsung. “Our privacy policy on beacons applies to the use of web beacons, a technology that is widely used across the industry and differs significantly to that of ultrasonic beacons. There is no relation between ultrasonic beacons and the functions embedded in our mobile products.”

The fact is that “beacon” can refer to a number of different technologies – ultrasonic beacons, media tracking beacons, and location beacons. The latter is actually quite helpful, and you’ve likely benefitted from it many times already. Anytime you use Google Maps or a similar location service, it’s thanks to location beacons that your phone can tell you where you are and how to get where you’re going.

That said, it’s not uncommon for beacons to be used inappropriately. Not too long ago, Google removed more than 200 apps from the Play Store that were found to have been using ultrasonic beacons to secretly track Android smartphone users. German researchers explained that beacons such as these can provide highly detailed information, such as what type of content (adult, political, etc.) is being viewed and for how long.

For more information about privacy in the modern digital age and how it could affect your business, check out our blog, or get in touch with us right away at (403) 686-4567 or info@computer-rescue.ca.

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