Have you ever been discussing something with a friend and then soon after an ad pops up on your browser for the same thing? You rack your brain, trying to think back to whether you had searched for it online before. But wait… Could your phone be listening to you? Surely not. That’s the stuff of Sci-Fi films. Or is it?
The answer is no. Your smartphone can and is listening to you. But it probably isn’t quite as frightening as it sounds.
How do ads usually target us?
Let’s back up a moment. Take a deep breath and start from the beginning.
Usually, if a brand wants to sell their ads to a targeted audience they will get permission from your social networks and the websites you visit to find out your activity. The data someone like Google has on you can be pretty detailed. Unless you actively turn off tracking in your privacy settings Google will record every single search term you’ve ever looked for. From this, they can estimate a lot of your demographic information (age and location), and much more. As a side note, if you want to see more on what Google knows about you check out this blog.
So now the brand has this info they can accurately target audiences with specific interests and preferences. This gives them a higher chance of selling to the right people. There’s been no secret about how ad networks and digital marketing companies use data to serve ads to the best audience. But what if this wasn’t the full picture?
How can our phones listen?
Smartphones do pick up audio in your environment, but it’s not the same as actively listening to your conversations. This is supposed to only happen when you activate a voice assistant. If you start your sentences with “Hey, Siri,” “OK, Google,” or “Alexa,” then it is fair game for them to pick apart the recording. Advertisers are looking for the sounds, such as TV commercials, movies, and other media that can clue them in on your interests. That, coupled with the information you voluntarily place on your social media accounts, the cookies you accept on websites you visit, and the permission to grant brands, all work together to provide companies with a lot about who you are.
But is it all really so by-the-book? The answer is we don’t know. However, your phone does have the capacity to be actively listening to you all the time. This has been proven by cybersecurity experts. They claim that they have easily set up a basic app on an Android phone that creates transcripts of what you say. Therefore it is more than likely big-tech has done the same. That is why you should be cautious, even if you think you have nothing to hide.
What does big-tech have to say?
Google and Facebook have both come out saying they do not use smartphones to record conversations or sounds around a users’ environment, despite the fact their ads seem creepily accurate.
There has been enough scrutiny on this topic that Facebook was forced to put out a statement. They said they show ads based on interests and information you place on your public profile, but not what you’re speaking about here and now. Google has also followed, saying that they do not use recordings from your phone to serve targeted ads.
Only Apple has confessed to it, sort of. They say they are only recording your voice for analysis data when you use Siri or Alexa. Their, rather pathetic, argument is that it is used for optimization of their products.
How do I stop my phone spying on me?
The following are some simple steps you can take to make sure your phone is more private. They are by no means full-proof but they will at least help with your paranoia!
To stop apps from using your microphone:
Go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone
Check which apps have microphone access and remove them as you wish.
To turn off Siri (for iOS 11 and 12):
Got to Settings > Siri & Search
Deselect Listen for “Hey Siri,” Press Home for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked
A prompt should appear asking if you want to turn off Siri; press Turn Off Siri.
To stop OK Google on Android:
Go to Settings > Google
Scroll to Services and select Search
So there you go. Even if so far it is unproven. It is definitely not out of the realms of possibility that your phone is listening to you. And you know what they say, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Let me know if you need any assistance with this or with anything else.
Incognito Privacy Care Team