Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Unless you live completely off the grid, in the woods, with no contact with the outside world, you are bound to come across smart technology at some point in your life.

Smart technology is in our mobile phones in our pockets, in our home technology, in our very television sets in our living rooms. There is literally no escaping it.

And for as long as it has been around there have been concerns over our technology eavesdropping on our private lives and perhaps having that information somehow used against us.

You and I, with our relatively mundane and non-James Bond-esque existences might feel we have nothing to worry about on such things, but for others there are genuine concerns.

Back when digital technology was first introduced people were shocked – and maybe a little intrigued – when their digital baby monitor picked up conversations through next door’s baby monitor, or indeed snippets of telephone conversations from down the street.

But technology has moved on greatly, and the bugs associated with them have seemingly got a lot bigger and a lot more dangerous than baby monitor eavesdropping.

Security Glitches

At the end of last month Apple were forced to act when a glitch in the hugely popular FaceTime app meant that video and audio started without the other caller picking up.

A bug in its iOS 12.1 iPhone software let strangers listen to conversations held during live video group chats or conference calls in the FaceTime feature.

There is little more terrifying than thinking someone, indeed several people, are automatically connected and video rolling when you are sitting, sans make-up in your pyjamas, looking as far from your Facebook profile as is humanly possible. And that, my friends, is the best case scenario that can be put forward before the watershed.

No doubt this glitch embarrassed many, many people with not only connections encroaching on their privacy, but also eavesdropping on private conversations.

And it hit Apple hard. The company were sued by a lawyer in Texas who claims his iPhone inadvertently allowed a stranger to eavesdrop on a private conversation with one of his clients.

Solicitor Larry Williams II said he was listened to while taking sworn testimony during a client interview. He said that the software glitch intruded on the ‘privacy of one’s most intimate conversations without consent’ and is seeking damages.

Apple did move immediately to mitigate the problem by disabling multi-person FaceTime and released software to fix the issue. But trust was damaged and confidence was dented.

And the problems for Apple didn’t end there. Just days after they dealt with the eavesdropping bug, it was revealed that their tool designed to help the hearing impaired could unwittingly allow criminals to spy on people.

The Live Listen feature, on Apple’s wireless AirPods and included in the latest version of iOS 12, makes it all too easy for people to eavesdrop, by giving them advanced hearing powers.

The feature was designed to help the hearing impaired by allowing them to put their iPhone close to a person they need to hear, like a lecturer or conference speaker, and hear what they are saying where they are sitting, up to 15 metres away, by simply turning up the volume on their earphones.

The need for enhanced security

However, tricksters are taking advantage of the technology, but spying on their bosses, snooping on their partners and other people who don’t know they are being eavesdropped on. Criminal elements could make very good use of this technology.

An Apple Watch could be left anywhere in the room you want to hear confidential conversations, discussions over finances, security details, passwords, matters of national security, what the President’s next plan of action is.

Apple cannot be held accountable for those who would use such a useful, life changing app for malicious purposes, but perhaps some manner of consent feature is needed to eliminate such issues.

With great power comes great responsibility. Technological giants need to be spending as much time and effort to protect us, the public, from security and privacy breaches as they do propelling their innovative products forward.

There is no doubt that technology has greatly improved our everyday lives greatly. But security and innovation need to work hand in hand to bolster public confidence. Otherwise we may all go off the grid and into the woods.