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microphone hacking

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Microphone hacking is the unauthorized interception of audio data captured through the microphone on a computer, smartphone or other device.

In 2014, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that government and intelligence community representatives could remotely activate a target smartphone’s microphone without causing any device behaviors that might alert the user. Smartphones that have been activated for surveillance purposes are sometimes referred to as roving bugs. In 2016, researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel created a proof-of-concept hack that exploited the microphones in headphones to capture conversation as much as 20 feet away from the device.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) develops, more and more devices are equipped with microphones for voice interaction and communications. Microphones that have been activated unbeknownst to the users have been reported in various types of devices including not only mobile devices but also smart TVs, home automation hubs and smart speakers.

In a consumer surveillance context, a device microphone might be accessed to eavesdrop on user conversations for data that can be used for targeted advertising. Countless people have reported, for example, that Facebook ads have appeared featuring products and services that they had only spoken of and had neither searched for nor mentioned in text chat online.

On Mashable, Kellen Beck explained how to protect your device from microphone hacking: Plug a microphone-equipped pair of earbuds into the audio jack and cut off the bud end with the microphone on it just below the mic. When you plug the earbuds in, the device switches default audio input from the internal mic to the external one, and since you've removed the external mic, it can't capture audio.

This was last updated in November 2017

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