Is your phone listening to you?

Anton P. | August 20, 2021

The internet overflows with spooky stories about smartphones allegedly listening to their owners’ real-life conversations. Covert eavesdropping is an invasion of privacy, especially if apps wiretap incredibly private exchanges. After dozens of discussions and studies on this matter, certain conclusions come to light. The simplest answer is yes; your smartphone is more than capable of recording your conversations. However, this does not mean that the eavesdropping is as wicked as you assume. Let’s figure out just how your phone can listen to your next heart-to-heart. 

Why do people think that their phones eavesdrop? 

The recurring evidence of phones listening to their owners is the eerie delivery of ads. Thousands of users have reported creepily accurate adverts filling their feeds after related discussions.

  • A couple claimed that wedding-related ads showed up before they ever Googled anything on that subject.
  • A woman who had recently quit her job mentioned that she might go for a position in Starbucks. Soon enough, an ad for Starbucks looking for new employees in her area popped up on her feed.
  • A group of friends at a bar tested whether their phones were actually joining in the conversation. They picked a random topic (new mattress) and added specific keywords into their conversation. Allegedly, ads for mattresses showed up in a matter of minutes. 

Coincidence? Some users strongly believe that thousands of individuals experiencing the same cannot be a mere accident. In fact, a study by Consumer Reports in 2019 discovered that 43% of Americans thought this to be accurate. Thus, the conspiracy theory of smartphones acting as covert spies persists to this day. 

And, in some cases, it makes sense that phones would take such a role. The big tech giants are no longer favorable in the people’s eyes. In 2019, ZDNet reported that the trust in these dominant companies has shattered. It mostly has to do with improper data exploitation or its inadequate protection. 

Thus, in the consumers’ eyes, it is plausible that big tech companies took such a diabolical step. However, the accusations are rather severe, and let’s find out why it might be true or not. 

How can your smartphone record your conversations? 

It is technically possible for smartphones and apps to record your real-life chit-chats. For instance, your smartphone can start recording after it detects specific triggers. “Hey Siri” is a trigger for iOS, and “Okay Google” is for Android. As soon as you issue a command, Siri and Google can record the words following the initial instruction. It is the same as typing a search query into a search engine. Thus, it will impact the ads you see. 

Additionally, there have been instances when these recordings would reach third parties to analyze the audio. It appeared that Apple did this in 2019, and the independent contractors would inspect thousands of snippets. 

The contractors did not only hear the basic search queries or questions. The recordings captured more personal details like: 

  • Medical information 
  • Audio from people in their most intimate moments 
  • Drug deals 

However, experts claim that people could unintentionally trigger recording. For instance, using “Okay Google” in a random sentence would allegedly activate it. The contractors connected to Apple also had a task to note when Siri would record accidentally. 

Thus, although Apple ended its association with such contractors by now, similar incidents can occur on any system. Therefore, be wary of what you say and avoid accidentally triggering assistants. 

Can apps listen to your conversations? 

The chances are apps like Facebook and Instagram have received unlimited privileges to the microphone. Some experts suggest that such apps could misuse their privileges, but not in the way you expect. These services may operate with unique triggers or keywords that they might detect in a conversation. However, companies like Facebook have long pledged that they would not tolerate such activities. 

Studies have also shown that apps secretly listening to your real-life conversations might be just a myth. In 2019, Wandera had conducted an experiment during which researchers placed two smartphones in a room. Then, ads for pet food played for 30 minutes a day over three days. 

The researchers looked at whether feeds would eventually fill up with ads for pet food. Additionally, they examined the data consumption, background activities, and battery use. 

To many believers’ surprise, Wandera did not detect any significant changes or pet-related ads. For the most part, there was virtually no difference in data consumption and battery use. If recordings had traveled to a cloud server, data usage would have undoubtedly spiked. 

Thus, the results coincided with big tech companies defending their involvement in such privacy invasions. 

Can you prevent apps from listening to you? 

You are welcome to turn off “Hey Siri” and “Okay Google” commands. 

You can disable the following settings in the “Siri & Search” section: 

  • Listen for “Hey Siri”
  • Press Side Button for Siri
  • Allow Siri When Locked

Also, pick “Turn off Siri” in the pop-up message.  

Disable “Okay Google” by navigating to Settings. Then, pick Google, followed by Account Services and Search, Assistant & Voice. Finally, choose Voice and move to Voice Match. Then, toggle “Hey Google.”

As for individual apps, you can decide whether they can have access to your microphone. In settings, you can set individual rights. For instance, set some apps to have access to the camera/microphone only when in use. Otherwise, when running in the background, they should not retain such permissions. 

The verdict and tips for defense

Naturally, some users will continue suspecting smartphones of secretly eavesdropping on their conversations. Unexplainably relevant and personalized ads can help push this narrative. And to a degree, some eavesdropping might take place due to such technologies as assistants. However, there is little evidence suggesting deliberate data collection. 

Experts also note that such a sinister privacy invasion would be a risky undertaking for any respectable company. After all, there is no shortage of options for tracking and ad personalization. 

And these practices, like cookies and browser fingerprinting, have become highly effective. Furthermore, users willingly give away their details to companies. That information paired with certain browsing habits can be the reason for incredibly tailored ads. 

Fed up with websites and big tech following you around? Follow these privacy recommendations: 

  • Download reliable apps and control their access. Avoid installing random apps and granting them too many permissions. 
  • Delete your voice request history. You can find the audio of the things you have asked Google. Not only can you find these recordings: you can delete them as well. 
  • Avoid using certain triggers. You can steer clear of particular words that might trigger audio recording. If you do not want to turn off assistants, avoid using the unique words that activate them. 
  • Prevent other types of eavesdropping. As mentioned, companies already have tremendous opportunities to track you. Additionally, unsafe connections could allow perpetrators to snoop on your activities. Thus, hackers could also be the ones eavesdropping on your digital lifestyle. Sadly, their motivations are different from giving you more relevant ads. Hence, we highly recommend installing a VPN and protecting your digital data and identity.
Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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