We’ve all had those creepy situations where we’re talking about something to a friend, then see an ad for it online. We haven’t searched for it, yet we’re suggested posts or ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Google.
It’s easy to wonder, are our phones listening to us? Because what other explanation could there be?
3 Bonus Privacy Tips For Smartphones
The answer is yes – and no. Your phone is listening to you, but probably not in the way you think.
Many apps on your smartphone use your microphone for a variety of reasons.
Messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Messenger use it to record voice messages or make calls. Video chat apps like Zoom or Google Meet use your mic to allow you to talk and other apps such as Snapchat or TikTok use your mic to record sound on your videos.
Virtual assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa, also use your microphone. They listen out for trigger words/activation phrases such as “Hey Siri,” “Ok Google,” or “Alexa” so that they can do what you ask. For this reason, your microphone is always on and listening as digital assistants are waiting for their trigger phrases.
Due to this, it could be possible for smart assistants to record your conversations. However – most phones don’t listen to you and your conversations to show you targeted advertisements. They don’t need to because they have a lot of information on you already.
Okay, we admit that the last part sounds ominous, but it’s the truth.
We spend most of our time online. We have to do it for work, school, socialization, and entertainment. As such, tech companies and advertising know more about us than many of us think and than some of them are willing to admit.
As such, they’re able to employ what’s known as online behavioral advertising (OBA).
It “allows advertisers and publishers to display highly relevant ads and personalized marketing messages to users based on their web-browsing behavior.”
Instead, what happens is that companies such as Google and Facebook, two of the largest stakeholders in online advertising, use your online activity to create advertising profiles for you.
Your advertising profile is created using data you share online such as your age, location, interests, and more. With this information, Google can send you targeted ads based on what you search, like, interact with, and more.
However, here’s where it gets weirder.
We mentioned that your location is added to your advertising profile. This is because companies like Google gain access to your location when you grant it using apps such as Maps or even a gaming app such as Pokemon Go.
Besides that location data being used to send you targeted ads, it also syncs with those in your close vicinity (say a partner or family member) and can send you their ads as well.
That’s why after having a conversation with a friend, you’ll notice that you start to get ads about whatever you discussed. This isn’t because your phone is eavesdropping on your conversation and showing you ads relating to the conversation.
Rather, the algorithm is comparing your advertising profile with whoever is in your vicinity, and shows you whatever they have interacted with or searched for online.
It’s important to note that even though Google and Facebook collect the data, they don’t always use it themselves. They sell that data to other companies and advertisers so they can market products to you.
If you’re curious about your Google advertising profile, you can head here and sign in with your Google Account.
After figuring out how your phone is listening to you. You’ve got to be wondering why, and the answer is simple.
Advertisers create advertising profiles for you to show you what you’d be interested in so you can spend money. It’s as simple as that.
Do you need these things? No, not always.
However, these targeted ads are created to touch on your fears, desires, insecurities, and more.
If you spent a good afternoon looking up ways to correct a bald spot. You’re going to receive ads for hair growth treatments and possibly surgeons who can fix bald spots. If your housemate has been looking for how to deal with bald spots then you’ll receive those ads too, probably not right away but it’s an inevitability.
Our smartphones aren’t only used by big tech companies to gather information on us. Government agencies such as the US National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and others can hack your phones to listen in on your conversations and monitor your online activity especially if you’re deemed a person of interest.
Many cellphone carriers and tech companies are required by law to hand over requested data to these government agencies. PRISM is the codename for a program where the NSA collected data from internet companies.
Government agencies aren’t the only ones who can hack your phone and eavesdrop on your conversations. There is spyware available that allows people to spy on you using your phone.
They can read your text messages, listen in on conversations you have in person or over the phone, take pictures, and more.
While we won’t be talking much more about government hacking or spyware, they are important factors to consider regarding your privacy.
If you want to test if your phone is eavesdropping, here’s a way to do it:
Now that you know the way your phone is listening to you or can be used to listen to you, you might be wondering “is any of this legal?”
In the case of apps that we allow, it is legal for them to listen to us. Many apps that use our mics have Terms and Conditions that we agree to before being able to use them. They also ask for our permission to use our mics, which we grant, and that means we legally consent.
However, in the case of spyware or malware. It is illegal for people to use these to record our conversations, track our calls, forward any calls, or do anything without our consent.
Many people use spy apps to help protect their kids online from predators, bullies, and the like. However, these same apps are often used by people to spy on their partners, ex-lovers, and more.
While many apps may use your microphone, you can remove that access. This goes for the smart assistants as well.
Siri is a notable digital assistant and known for how helpful she is, but you can also live without her.
Here’s how to turn off Siri:
Step 1: Open the Settings app.
Step 2: Scroll and tap Siri and Search.
Step 3: From the list of options, toggle off:
Step 4: Lastly, you’ll see a pop-up window appear, tap the “Turn Off Siri” option.
Google isn’t one to be outdone, so they’ve got their assistant. You can trigger it by saying OK Google, similar to how you can say Hey Siri for iOS devices.
Here’s how to turn off Google Assistant on your Android phone:
Step 1: Open the Settings app.
Step 2: Navigate to Google > Settings for Google Apps.
Step 3: Afterward tap Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice.
Step 4: Tap Voice Match and toggle off “Hey Google” to turn off Android’s voice assistant.
As mentioned before, you can remove microphone access to any app on your phone. Here’s how to do it on both Android and iOS devices.
If you’ve got an iPhone, it’s quite simple to turn off your mic. You can do this for select apps or Siri and Search. Here’s how it’s done for all the apps:
Step 1: Open the Settings app.
Step 2: Scroll and tap Microphone.
Step 3: Toggle off the microphone for the apps that you want to turn it off for.
If you want to turn off your microphone access for apps on Android, the process has a few more steps than an iPhone but it’s fairly simple as well.
Step 1: Open the Settings app.
Step 2: Tap Privacy > Permission Manager
Step 3: In the Permission Manager menu, tap Microphone
Step 4: From the list of apps available tap the one, you want to deny access to your microphone.
Step 5: Next, tap Deny from the list of options.
Step 6: Repeat these steps for your desired apps.
Turning off your smart assistants and removing microphone access are two things you can do to protect your privacy. However, there’s a lot more you can do to increase your privacy on your smartphone.
Known as a virtual private network, a VPN adds a layer of protection by masking your IP address and creates a private network to protect your online activity. If you’re not using a VPN on your phone already, check out our VPN reviews to find the best one for you.
Only download official apps from your device’s respective app store. This assists you in avoiding third-party apps that may contain malware that can compromise your privacy.
As you’ve seen, many apps have access to your microphone, when they don’t need it. Review your app permissions to see if those apps require access to your microphones and deny those that don’t to help protect your voice.
As our technological advancements continue to grow and more of our lives become attached to the digital world, we must do what we can to protect our voices and our privacy to find the best one for you.
While your phone may not be listening to how you think, tech companies still have more data on people than they know. It’s important to know what you share, so you can decide if you’re comfortable with it or not.
Orane Ennis is a writer with a passion for tech and how it will change the landscape of business. He’s most excited to see how augmented reality will blend the real and digital world in the years to come.