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