Have you ever noticed your Facebook ads changing after you mentioned something in a conversation? Like that time you were discussing an upcoming hiking trip with your partner and started seeing ads of sleeping bags and tents. Or when you were considering getting a dog and were immediately bombarded with pages for animal lovers. Is it a coincidence, or are our phones listening to us?
In 2011, Apple introduced Siri, the first virtual assistant designed for iPhones. It paved the way for Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and many others. They listen to your voice all the time and, after you trigger a special command, recognize you so you can make calls, send texts, ask questions, and control your device.
We can definitely say that your phone is listening to you. It has to always listen to you so it can hear your voice command and assist you. However, things are not that simple.
Apple randomly selects a small portion of users’ conversations with Siri to analyze them and see how they can improve the quality of their service. In 2019, a report revealed that Siri can sometimes be mistakenly activated and record private matters, such as people having sex, discussing business, and even talking with their doctors, all of which might later be passed on to contractors responsible for analyzing voice recordings. Apple apologized to its users and promised to improve its policies. But Siri’s case is not an exception, as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are using similar systems.
When you ask Google Assistant or Siri to find something, this information is used for online advertising. It’s no different from typing something into Google Search. If you’re looking for car dealerships in your city, related ads will start chasing you across the internet. In a way, a virtual assistant is just another search engine.
When you’re using a virtual assistant, you agree to the terms and conditions of the service provider. And since you’ve given your consent, it’s legal to track your conversations with Google Assistant, Siri, or Alexa for marketing purposes.
It only becomes illegal if an app is spying on you without your consent. That’s why it’s important to review the permissions you’re giving to certain services and learn about the ways your phone is tracking you. If the photo editor you just downloaded asks to access your microphone, consider it fishy, as it can record your voice in the background and use this information for malicious purposes.
A virtual assistant is just another feature on your smartphone, speaker, watch, or any other device. If you don’t use it or feel unsafe, you can disable it.
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