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Is My Phone Listening to Me?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in SecuritySeptember 22, 2022

Many people ask, is my phone listening to me? The answer is complicated. Yes, but not really.

One thing should be clear from the start. Our devices are NOT constantly capturing and storing our voices through their microphones. However, that's because our phones have countless other ways to learn about us.

The misconception that phones are always listening stems from a reasonable place. After a conversation about your dog's treats being unhealthy, various organic dog treat advertisements are suddenly popping up everywhere.

It's challenging to write this off as mere coincidence.

Why Do Conversations Spill into Advertisements?

The hole in the logic is that phones don't need to listen to users' conversations to know what each person needs. Tech companies' information gathering is more in line with the old idiom, "actions speak louder than words."Everything we do paints a picture of who we are.

Location tracking tells companies what stores and events we frequent. Visiting websites creates browser cookies and reveals our current interests. Meta (formerly Facebook) even has its own program, Pixel, that follows users' browsing history no matter where they go.

Advertising platforms combine these details to build an evolving marketing strategy for every individual.

Your phone doesn't need to listen through its microphone to figure out you want to start a garden. It already knows from your research on fertilizer and trips to local plant nurseries.

Conversation tends to revolve around new aspects of our lives. Because our phones can deduce what those are, people will often notice their advertisements reflecting their real-life conversations.

Once you notice this coincidence once, then it's easy to start seeing it everywhere. This recognition is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or the frequency illusion. It is simply a cognitive bias that makes people notice a trend more often after seeing it once.

This tricks people into believing that a trend has happened more often than it is. So, even if their ads only reflect 5 percent of their conversation, it will feel like far more.

is my phone listening to me

What is the Accelerometer

Smartphones tracking physical locations and browsing activity explains why specific adverts follow us around the web. It doesn't explain why we often see ads related to family members or friends.

We get adverts designed for our social group because advertising platforms assume close friends and family share similar interests. They use something called the accelerometer to pair devices and make assumptions about one phone owner based on the other.

The accelerometer is the built-in component in a smartphone that measures minute movements. It can even detect the small bumps experienced when riding in a vehicle.

If two devices log the same minute movements, then analysts know that those devices are likely traveling together. So, even if one phone has turned off all location and tracking services, companies can still gather information about it through the other device.

The worst part is that smartphones don't have to ask the user for permission to turn on the accelerometer. It's considered a core part of the phone that is always active by default.

When is my Phone Listening to Me?

There are times when our smartphones need to listen in. There are many applications with text-to-speech capabilities, and driving aids allow voice commands for hands-free driving.

Virtual assistant services garner the most suspicion for spying on phone owners. Virtual assistants always keep an ear out for activation phrases like Hey Siri or Hey Google. This causes skeptics to believe that the microphone is permanently on.

The skeptics are right. The microphone on smartphones is always on.

Operating systems request the user's agreement to this when first setting up Siri or Google Assistant. Rest assured that agreeing to this doesn't mean a phone is always recording its user. These services only start a recording when they're activated either manually or through a voice command.

Apple's full policy on dictation services can be found here.

Where and why are my Virtual Assistant Recordings Stored?

Both Google and Apple report to store communications with their virtual assistants. The stated reason is to gather data for improving their dictation capabilities.

While Android users can easily find their recordings on the "Activity Controls" page of their Google Dashboard, Apple owners will have a bit more difficulty.

Due to Apple's focus on creating highly secure and private devices, it lacks the data management options offered by Google. People must delete all their data from Apple's website to delete their voice recordings.

The silver lining is that Apple does allow users to make their recordings anonymous before they are transferred.

Yes. Every application that uses the phone's microphone needs to ask permission. Even if a developer wants to trick users, their product must run through the operating system's permissions.

It's worth mentioning that less than 1 in 10 participants reported always reading an application's privacy policy. Other studies find that even people who take the time to read these agreements weren't reading closely enough to catch unreasonable clauses.

If a phone is recording illegally, it's likely due to malware or other cyber threats on the device. These malicious programs usually come from clicking on a spam text or email link.

How to Stop My Phone from Listening to Me?

Our phones are integral to daily life. Leaving them behind isn't an option, but phone owners can prevent having their voices recorded by changing a few settings. The first step is to disable both Siri and Google Assistant activation commands. This prevents these services from keeping the microphone active 24/7.

For iPhones: Go to settings > Siri & Search > Allow Siri When Locked and tap "Turn Off Siri."

For Android Users: Go to settings > Google > Settings for Google Apps > Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice > Voice Match and disable "Hey Google."

Securing an iPhone

Here are the steps to prevent an iPhone from listening in or tracking your web activity.

  1. Open settings -> privacy -> microphone to see all the apps that can use your microphone. Once there, disable the microphone on any non-essential applications.
  2. Open settings -> Safari and enable "Prevent Cross-Site Tracking."
  3. Opensettings -> Chrome and disable "Allow Cross-Site Tracking."
  4. Open settings -> privacy -> tracking and disable "Allow Apps to Request to Track."
  5. Open settings -> privacy -> location servicesandchange all applications to either "While Using the App" or "Never."

Securing an Android Device

Here are the steps to prevent an Android Device from listening in or tracking your web activity

  1. Open settings > privacy > permission manager > microphone and change every application to "Ask Every Time" for microphone access.
  2. Open settings > privacy > permission manager > location and change every application to allow location services after "Ask Every Time" or "Never."
  3. Open settings > privacy > Google location history and turn off Location History.
  4. Open settings > apps > more actions (3 dots in the upper right corner) > special access > usage data access and disable all instances of "Allow Usage Tracking."

Whether you have an iPhone or Android device, your phone tells advertisers much more than you want them to know. Following these steps will keep your data safe while giving you full access to your phone's capabilities.

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