02 May Is My Phone Listening to Me?
By: Meagan Roberts
This question was the most Googled tech mystery by Texans going into 2019. The real question, though, is whether this so called ‘mystery’ is fact or fiction? There are countless stories of real people sharing the times they have been convinced their phones were listening to them. Some of these stories are so convincing it’s difficult to write them off as mere coincidences.
Three stories from real people:
“I recently had an extremely bizarre and unsettling experience with some targeted advertising that felt like more than coincidence, after a voice call on WhatsApp,” said Olivia, from Austin. “I was catching up with a friend who lives in London and she told me a story about how her new landlord purchased an outdoor storage shed for their bins (a product that I think is rather uniquely British). We had a good laugh about that, and I expressed how I needed something similar here in Texas. The next day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I came across an ad from Wayfair advertising a storage shed for outdoor bins and was immediately taken aback. Before our conversation happened, this was not a product that I even knew existed.”
“Debated this at a bar with some friends… to test it and settle the debate, we got a random product type from another table: a new mattress,” said Justin, in Atlanta. “As I had not bought, searched for, or even thought about a new bed in several years and I couldn’t remember seeing a mattress ad online ever, we started talking about beds and mattresses and guessing keywords, like slipping ‘California king’ and ‘buy a mattress online’ into the conversation, while intermittently scrolling facebook. Two mattress ads in five minutes. None before that conversation.”
“Just last week I left my employment and was with my friend having a chat about which direction I was going to go in,” said Lindsey, in England. “I said, ‘I like coffee, I might just end up at Starbucks so I can drink more coffee.’ Next time I checked my Facebook on my phone, [I saw] a Starbucks advert as they were holding an open event in London to find new staff.”
Some of these stories are hard not to believe. What are the odds that something you have never looked up on the internet, talked about, or even heard about suddenly appears on a Facebook ad? Experts, journalists, and even politicians have been debating whether or not apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are actually listening in on our conversations to know what advertisements to display to us.
What does Facebook say?
“I think it’s very, very unlikely,” said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager.
“Constant streams of audio from such a high volume of phones would be too expensive to gather and analyze and all the data would drive up people’s phone bills. Besides, companies don’t have to listen to us to know what’s on our minds.”
On top of experts’ denials, Facebook itself has denied any accusations of “listening” to user conversations
“Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.” – official statement from Facebook (2016).
A lot may have changed since 2016. In March of 2018, a Facebook official made a separate statement to Time Money that Facebook doesn’t “listen in” on real-life, daily conversations, but instead simply accesses the mic if users give the app permission or are using a feature that requires audio. To what extent is unclear.
Does that really match our experience?
Well, if apps are not listening to us, then why do these ads pop up about a random, new product right after having a conversation about it? It can’t be a coincidence. This is exactly why some experts still believe it is very possible and probable apps like Facebook are spying on our conversations to gather information to display certain ads to us to make a profit.
According to Dr. Peter Henway — the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix — the short answer is “yes, these apps are listening to you,” but maybe in a better way than it seems. For instance, in order for your iPhone or smartphone to reliably listen and record your conversations, there needs to be a trigger word or phrase, such as “Siri” or “Okay, Google”. However, without these triggers, any data you provide, such as text messages, internet searches, etc. can still be stored within your phone. Third party applications, like Facebook, not only have access to triggered data, but also the non-triggered data. Whether or not these apps use this data is really up to them.
“Seeing Google is open about [using user information to sell advertisements], I would personally assume the other companies [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.] are doing the same,” Dr. Henway said. “Really, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. It makes good sense from a marketing standpoint, and their end-use agreements and the law both allow it, so I would assume they’re doing it, but there’s no way to be sure.”
Google has said it has access to “70 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the United States” and has trackers on 76 percent of websites. Google also admits it scans its 1.2 billion users’ emails, though they promised back in 2017 to stop scanning for advertising purposes.
Maybe not “listening” but “using” audio and other user information.
To sum all that up, these apps might not actually be “listening” in on our daily conversations while our phones are just sitting in our pockets, but, according to Dr. Henway, it is possible they start listening if you use a trigger, such as ‘Hey, Siri’. But, what if there are other trigger words we are not aware of? For example, say the company that makes Tic Tacs pay Facebook to sell a Tic Tac ad if a user says or types the word Tic Tac while using Facebook. This theory is a possibility, but there is no way to be absolutely sure. However, according to that statement made by a Facebook official to Time Money back in 2018, Facebook does access your phone’s microphone if you give them permission. They also access the mic if you are using a feature that requires audio, such as watching a video or making a call through messenger. So, maybe that Tic Tac theory is actually very probable? But, just because these apps have access to all this information doesn’t mean they use it, but technically they can access our phone’s microphone and camera at any time if we give that app permission. And, that’s not even the worst of it. According to both Dr. Henway and Sandy Parakilas, the former Facebook operations manager, apps don’t need to listen to our conversations to know what we’re thinking. All they have to do is scan through our messages and searches, just like Google scans through its user’s emails. That alone probably gives apps a lot of the information they need to ‘read our minds’ and sell us the perfect ads.
Take action to protect your information online.
So, we know for sure apps and companies have access to a lot of our information, i.e. searches, emails, messages, purchases, and maybe even audio. But, to answer our first question about whether our phones listening to us is either fact or fiction, the answer is both. It’s really up to how you define “listening”. If you believe Facebook’s denial that they don’t use our conversations, then you should have no worries. However, if you are like Dr. Henway and think they probably do use our information and listen to us, there are some steps you can take to be cautious online and protect your privacy.
- Be careful about what you search, what you post and what you say online. Anything sent out into the internet will always be floating out there, no matter if it has been deleted after being sent.
- Do not save passwords or credit cards online. Yes, it makes it a lot easier to remember all your passwords, but it could allow someone access to even more of your information.
- Go into your settings and make sure you are not allowing any applications on your phone to have access to your microphone or camera.
- Also, applications and websites often ask for access to your location. That definitely makes me uneasy, so I always select deny when apps ask for access to my location.
Follow these 4 steps, and I guarantee your information will be better protected online. There is just no way of knowing right now who has access to what, so it’s better to just be extra cautious.
What should companies do?
For companies who are contemplating using user data or listening to user conversations to sell advertisements, would this strategy be good or bad for business?
Some benefits are that companies are able to 1) improve their understanding of what their customers want, 2) adjust their marketing strategies to better reach their customers and 3) sell your information to make a profit.
Those seem like a lot of positive reasons for companies to use customer data, but what about the repercussions? A Gallup poll recently revealed that only 6 percent of Americans trust big corporations “a great deal,” with an additional 12 percent trusting them “quite a lot,” leaving a whopping 82 percent of Americans who are distrusting of big businesses. Even small businesses are reporting lower numbers, with 68 percent of Americans having only some trust in them. Additionally, more than 53 percent of Americans use some kind of ad blocker, whereas only 7 percent view ads in a positive light. So, why is distrust in corporations and advertising so prevalent among consumers?
The main reasons are:
- The Abundance of Ads: On average, Americans are exposed to 5,000 ads a day.
- Perception of Greediness: Ads are just a way for companies to make more money off of innocent consumers.
- Access to Information: News about user information being leaked is more available to consumers. Scandals, profits, accidents and errors are under a public magnifying glass, and every misstep is another reason for consumers to lose trust.
So, the answer to our second question is not clear either. It’s up to companies to decide whether benefiting themselves is more important than customer trust and loyalty. Personally, I would strongly advise all companies to choose the latter. Don’t be known as that creepy and desperate company using or selling customer data. Be known as the company that values their customer’s trust over a little financial gain.
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