Imagine scrolling through your Facebook when you see a weird ad. It’s for something you know you've never been interested in. You shrug it off as poor ad targeting until you start seeing it again and again. Then it clicks — hey, isn’t this something your friend mentioned recently when talking to you? It seems like the only way your phone could’ve thought you’re interested in this topic is if it was listening to all of your conversations.
Mar 19, 2021 · 5 min read
Depending on your phone’s OS, apps, and settings, it could be listening in on you when you least expect it. Read on to find out how to test if your phone is spying on you.
First, I’d like to tell you the story of our experience with this test. My co-workers and I picked a couple of topics we were sure that none of us had discussed recently and had never searched for on Google:
We put our phones on the table and talked about every topic for a couple of minutes three days straight. Starting from Alaska’s wilderness, sled dogs, and upcoming holidays, followed by different Volvo models, and finishing with geckos and chameleons.
We all agreed to closely monitor the ads we’d get on our phones to see if any of them relate to the chosen topics.
The test results were mixed.
None of us bumped into reptile ads. Peter owns a dog, and he’s constantly bombarded with advertisements of local pet shops, veterinarians, and dog trainers. He never receives ads about cats, parrots, or other pets, which implies that his phone knows exactly what Peter needs.
Alaska also didn’t appear in our feeds. Laura and I got a few ads offering flight tickets, but the holiday season was approaching and we were both avid travelers. It’s hard to say whether these ads were linked to our office discussion.
But just when I thought that these rumors about our phones listening to us is a hoax, I started seeing Volvo ads. I have no interest in owning a car and have never searched for cars online. Peter and Laura didn’t see any ads related to any car manufacturers.
Imagine how much information search engines know about us: our age, location, sex, hobbies, work history, and favorite restaurants. Based on the things we reveal about ourselves online and our search history, marketers can paint a detailed picture of our personalities.
I’m in my thirties, I live in a city, and I work at a cybersecurity company. I often read about the latest tech, and I occasionally watch Formula One. Would this be enough to trigger Volvo ads? It’s possible, but not probable. I can’t tell for sure if my phone was listening to me, analyzing me for speech, and targeting me for ads, or if it was just a mere coincidence.
The test results may also depend on the device you’re using and your settings. Since our blog’s readers are likely to be more concerned about their privacy than the average internet user, your results may vary. Results may also vary from person to person, as ad targeting may use a host of different data points about people, but in some cases, the matches are quite uncanny.
When you trigger a special command on your smartphone, it recognizes your voice and prepares to execute your orders. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple and other tech companies then analyze some of the data you provide to your virtual assistant to improve their services. Some critics say they do this even if the user has restricted their permissions.
Tech giants have denied multiple times any accusations that they may be listening to you even then your virtual assistant is in sleep mode. However, this is not exactly true. A report has revealed that Apple’s Siri can be mistakenly activated and then record private matters. With the right settings enabled, they will also reserve the right to use this data to serve you ads.
In 2019, Google admitted that 1,000 recordings of customer conversations were leaked from a third-party contractor to a Belgian news outlet. Some recordings contained private information, such as home addresses, medical conditions, and even business calls.
Some recordings contained enough data to identify some of the people speaking. The company’s spokesperson claimed the leak happened because one of their contractors violated their security and privacy policies.
If Google can’t trust their own contractors, how can we trust them with our data?
With NordVPN, you can protect up to six different devices. Since not only smartphones, but also laptops, tablets, and even smart speakers are vulnerable to snoopers, a VPN could help you keep prying eyes away.