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Is my phone listening to me?

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?

Karolis Bareckas Karolis Bareckas

Karolis Bareckas

Is my phone listening to me?

Is it true that my phone is listening to me?

In 2011, Apple introduced Siri, the first virtual assistant designed for iPhones. It paved the way for Alexa, 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 via your device's onboard microphone. It always has to 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 and default settings. But Siri’s case is not an exception, as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are using similar systems and default settings.

Why is my phone listening to me?

When you ask Google Assistant or Siri to find something, this information is used for targeted ads. 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.

Test if your phone is spying on you

Here’s an interesting technique to find out if your phone has been listening and logging your conversations.

  • Select a good topic. It should be something quite far from your comfort zone that couldn’t be associated with your personality.
  • Isolate the topic from your phone. It is critically important that you don’t select this topic within earshot of your phone or any other devices. Do not use your phone to search for info on this topic. The best way to do it is to think of it in your head. If you can’t do that, turn off your phone completely or hide it in a soundproof space before discussing your idea with anyone. Make sure you have never Googled this topic;
  • Select keywords. Think of a list of keywords that could trigger search engines. Let’s take Alaska as an example. Some keywords might include “holidays in Alaska”, “Alaska tours”, “flights to Alaska”, “hotels in Alaska”, or “what to do in Alaska”;
  • Discuss the topic out loud next to your phone. You can do this alone or with someone else for several minutes at a time. Do this a few days in a row. Make sure you don’t search for the topic in any way — your phone’s only contact with it should be hearing you talk about it.

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Our experiment on testing a phone

A few workers in our office decided to test this technique, picking subjects that none of them had ever shown any interest in. Laura chose to talk about traveling to Alaska, Jason talked about buying a new Volvo, and Peter talked about getting a pet lizard.

The three subjects got together and talked about their subjects of choice for a couple of minutes a day, over three days. When the subjects were discussed, their phones were all in the center of the table, perfectly within listening range.

The subjects monitored their phone ad results over the three days to see if there was any change in the frequency and subject matter.

What we discovered

The test results were mixed. Peter never came across any reptile ads. He does, however, own a dog and is constantly bombarded with ads for local pet stores, vets and dog trainers. No ads were ever involving other pets — they all featured dogs, implying that the phone knew exactly what Peter needed.

Similarly, Laura didn’t receive any ads regarding traveling in Alaska. She did, however, receive a few ads about cheap flights, but those could be attributed to the holiday season approaching.

Jason, however, began to see Volvo ads. Jason has never owned a car, searched for a car online, or has any interest in buying a car. Nonetheless, after three days of experimentation, Jason received a surge of Volvo ads.

What does this prove?

Based on our collective browsing results, search engines can compile a frightening amount of data about an individual: age, location, sex, hobbies, where they work, and favorite interests. Using these details, an effective profile can be built and targeted for specific adverts.

Jason is in his thirties, lives in a city and works at a cybersecurity company. While he often reads about the latest tech and occasionally watches Formula One, would this be enough to trigger a deluge of Volvo ads? It’s possible. But it’s also possible to be a coincidence. There isn’t enough evidence so far to fully attribute the change in ads to phone listening.

The test results could also depend on the device used, along with the settings. For those who obsessively manage app permissions, they may not be on the receiving end of targeted ads as much as someone who is more lax with their apps.

Results vary from person to person, and ad targeting can use a whole host of different data points to build a profile on someone. While the matches can be uncanny, they can also be chalked up as pure coincidence.

Is listening to me without my knowledge legal?

When you’re using a virtual assistant, you agree to the terms and conditions of the service provider. And if you’ve given your consent in your Google assistant settings, for instance, 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.

How to make my phone stop listening to me

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.

How to turn off your microphone on iPhone and Android devices

How to disable Siri iOS:

  1. Go to Settings > Siri & Search.
  2. Toggle off Listen for “Hey Siri”, Press Side Button for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked.
  3. Tap on Turn Off Siri in the pop-up.

How to disable Google Assistant on Android:

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Select Google > Account Services > Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice.
  3. Select Voice Match and toggle off Hey Google.

Other ways to turn of the microphone on your phone

There are a few other steps you can take to limit microphone activity on your device.

For example, you can edit the audio permissions for individual apps on your phone. Most applications that use your microphone in some way can have their access revoked in your settings. Remember that removing microphone permissions may limit certain apps' overall functionality.

There are also a range of more physical solutions available. The microphone on your device can be covered, preventing it from effectively picking up or recording nearby audio.

You can use small stickers and pieces of tape to at least partially limit the microphone's range, or buy specialized phone cases and attachments. Before purchasing any products that claim to block microphones, however, read all available reviews; there are plenty of substandard options online.

5 tips to protect your privacy on a smartphone

  1. Only download virtual assistant apps from official stores. Google Assistant and Siri are the most popular options among smartphone users, but there are a handful of more specialized virtual assistants. Some people download them from questionable sources and risk installing malware.
  2. Review app permissions. Check your phone settings and review the permissions you’ve given to your apps. If some of them can access your microphone for no solid reason, it’s a red flag.
  3. Speaking of app permissions, inspect your phone every so often for apps that you don't recognize. Sometimes, if you've fallen for a phishing attack, clicked on a dodgy link or ad somewhere, or downloaded malware instead of a legitimate file from a website – you could have spyware on your phone.

    Spyware and malware can sometimes get installed onto your phone via various scams and phishing attacks. And often this spyware can be disguised inside an app that forces itself onto your device, and secretly runs in the background, spying on your every move. So make sure you routinely check for rogue apps and delete them immediately.

  4. Delete your voice request history. While Siri claims not to keep your voice request history, Google Assistant does. If you were to lose your phone, somebody malicious could extract your search results.
  5. So, you might be wondering, “What does Google know about me? The short answer is: a lot.

    Google, and other unencrypted search engines monitor your search terms, and all of the websites you visit. This data is often sold to advertisers who build consumer profiles and target you with 'relevant' ads. This is also known as re-targeting.

    Your ISP also knows your IP address as well as everything you do online, which could reveal intimate details about you, like your location.

  6. Use a VPN. A VPN for Android and iOS masks your IP address and encrypts traffic, to enhance your privacy. If you’re looking for ways to stay away from snoopers and hackers, get the NordVPN app. It works by wrapping your phone with an encrypted secure layer, mitigating the risks of being attacked online. (Note: It won't affect voice monitoring services that you have authorized)
  7. NordVPN encrypts your traffic with a high-end encryption, hides your IP, thus no one can see where you are and what you do online. With just a single click you can enjoy top-notch protection and privacy.

    NordVPN also has the Threat Protection feature that blocks malicious ads and trackers. It also prevents you from landing on dodgy websites and helps to identify malicious files.

  8. Update your software regularly. Hackers exploit known software vulnerabilities while developers patch security flaws to be one step ahead. Updates are boring, but they enhance your privacy immensely.

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Karolis Bareckas
Karolis Bareckas Karolis Bareckas
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Karolis is a tech geek who writes about cybersecurity, online privacy, and the latest gadgets. When not rattling his keyboard, he’s always eager to try a new burrito recipe or explore a new camping spot.