Smartphone at your side, you’re casually chatting with a friend about getting a new puppy. The next thing you know, Puppy Chow ads start appearing in your social media feeds.

Is your smartphone eavesdropping on you?

According to a 2019 Consumer Reports survey, 43% of Americans who own a smartphone believe it’s recording conversations without permission.

Can or does this happen, or is it a fanciful myth of the digital age? And what about the Amazon-powered Echo or other smart speakers sitting on your kitchen counter? Are they listening in too? Chun Wai Liew, associate professor of computer science, weighs in.

“Siri and the Google Assistant are always listening and recording. The question is whether that recording is sent back to the company or not,” he says. “The companies typically say that they are recording to improve the performance of their products. The other question is, are you sure you haven’t done a Google search for dog food or purchased it online in the past? If you’re sure you haven’t been looking, then someone is breaking the rules.”

Information security is one of many trending topics that surface among students enrolled in Lafayette’s new data science minor, which Liew chairs.

No matter where we are on the technological spectrum, life is dangerous, a double-edge sword.

“Another question becomes how much security do you put in before there’s conflict between ease of use and safety?” he says.

Everyone is vulnerable to personal data breaches, a problem that keeps cybersecurity experts fully employed.

Back in January, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos fell victim to a smartphone hack. Malware can be embedded in the most seemingly benign deliverables like video files, Liew says.

Is there any protection from insidious apps and attachments? “You could turn your smartphone into a dumb phone, and you’d never have the problem,” he says. “Never have any messages that have images, never have attachments, just text and voice. That’s it.” Filters could be set to prevent attachments, “but how convenient would your smartphone be? Convenience and ease of use is lost,” Liew says.

Internet-connected smart speakers respond to voice commands. “So if you can hack the system, the device can record and send the records somewhere else,” he says. “Safeguarding your information is more about using common sense and being less trusting. You can also take steps to restrict what information apps have access to.

“No matter where we are on the technological spectrum, life is dangerous, a double-edged sword,” Liew adds.

“You deal with that,” he says. “This not a new thing; technology just introduced a new toy into it. There’s always been this tension of ease of use, privacy, and security.”