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“Is my phone listening to me?” Apparently, the answer is both ‘definitely’ and ‘not really.’

Is my phone listening to me?

“Is my phone listening to me?” Apparently, the answer is both ‘definitely’ and ‘not really.’

If it hasn’t happened to you personally, you’ve undoubtedly had a friend swear that they’d been targeted by ads after discussing a product or topic. In the majority of cases, the discussion didn’t even happen during a phone conversation but instead, it was an in-person conversation between the friend and another person while their phone was in the vicinity. “Dude, I was talking to my girlfriend about outdated chocolates,” your terrified buddy tells you. “I definitely didn’t Google anything about it and never have. Two hours later, an ad for Abba-Zaba turns up on my Instagram feed. They’re listening to us, man!”

Cast of 'Signs' wearing tin-foil hats

The thing is, your buddy currently hiding under the bed isn’t particularly prone to conspiracy theories. And his is far from the first claim of secret phone-listening that you’ve heard. We know that private data collection is arguably the most valuable currency that companies deal with today. So doesn’t it make sense that getting information about our deepest desires by spying on our conversations is the next logical step? Well, let’s start off with this – for many of us, it’s definitely a fact that our phones and other devices are listening to us.

So our phones are spying on us.

I have no clue. 

“Wait, but you said…” Fine distinction: what we know for sure is that, by default, many of our devices are listening. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re recording information, much less sending it to anyone. You might argue that just your phone listening in is an invasion of privacy. The thing is, you’re the one that agreed to it.

In order to tell us the time, turn on our smart TV, or tell us a terrible Dad joke, apps like Siri, Alexa and Bixby need to be listening for their respective triggers like “Hey Siri” and “Alexa.” Since there’s no way for your virtual assistant to predict when you’ll ask for their help, they’re listening all the time. Additionally, many apps we install and some pre-installed browsers may require permission to access your microphone by default. So the real question isn’t “is my phone listening to me?” The question is “are our phones recording us and transmitting that information for advertising purposes without our knowledge?”

Okay, Mr. Literal. Are they?

Couldn’t tell ya. 

I’m being flippant here but it really is a question that, as of now, doesn’t have a proven answer. Until a kindly whistleblower drops the dime, anyone who tells you that they have scientifically-sound proof is full of you-know-what. The tech companies naturally deny this is happening, while some cell phone users say they’re 100% sure it’s happened to them. Since there isn’t incontrovertible proof either way, our best bet is to look at what we do know. 

Have companies ever recorded and used audio recordings of us?

They absolutely have and admitted as much. Apple, Google and Facebook all copped to not only recording users, but paying outside contractors to transcribe these recordings as well. By now you know what’s coming next. If they’re to be believed, it wasn’t at all nefarious. The tech companies have explained that they hired contractors to review anonymized audio snippets in order to review whether their AI was correctly interpreting human speech. Facebook stated that all recordings came from people who had opted-in to have their Messenger voice chats transcribed, while Apple’s privacy page notes that “to help them recognize your pronunciation and provide better responses,” searches and other information may be sent to Apple servers. 

Is my phone listening?

The thing is, at no point do they clearly state other human beings will be listening. And the problems don’t stop there. False triggers can activate personal assistant software, making the recording of private conversations more likely. In the case of Apple Watch, Siri is activated when you raise your wrist. After the brouhaha that resulted when this practice came to light, all the companies have either ceased the practice or clearly provided an opt-out. Still, doesn’t exactly instill you with confidence that tech companies respect your privacy, does it?

Exactly. They’re totally spying. I’ve even seen targeted ads from phone listening in action on the news!

There have been some pretty convincing cases of ads seemingly targeted as a result of spoken phrases covered in the media. One of the most famous Facebook listening incidents occurred when University of South Florida professor Kelli Burn appeared on a local news program. “I’m really interested in going on an African safari,” she said with her phone in her hand. “I think it’d be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps.” She waited for a beat then checked her Facebook feed. Right on the top was a post from a friend about an African safari she had been on and a bit lower, an ad for Volkswagen. 

Meanwhile, the author of a Vice article that quickly went viral recounted an experiment where he said phrases including “I’m thinking about going back to uni” and “I need some cheap shirts for work.” He then reported being presented with ads for university courses and cheap clothing. Boom. There are multiple other instances that seem inexplicable unless our private conversations are being utilized. Proof positive, right? 

Well, no. When the news station and other media outlets began running the story “professor proves our phones are spying on us,” Burns herself denied saying any such thing. Noting her exercise on the news was neither scientific nor comprehensive, she also pointed out that she could not say for sure she had not searched those topics recently. The fact that her friend gets a lot of engagement and that she herself is a VW owner were other factors she pointed to as possible explanations. Critics of the Vice article have pointed out that the author’s process was similarly non-scientific; the topics seemed to be ones he actually was interested in and likely had searched before, and that he did not clarify whether there were many other topics he tried that didn’t show up. Disconcerting? Yes. Definitive? No. 

Okay, you’re clearly working for Facebook or something. I guess we’re all crazy and you’re saying definitively that Apple-Face-Google-Zon isn’t spying on our conversations?

Not at all. I’ve actually had similar experiences that freaked me right out. The problem is, it’s impossible to prove a negative. If they’re ever caught red-handed, we’ll have the evidence that tech companies are collecting and using data from our private conversations. Conversely, they can swear till they’re blue in the face that they don’t spy on us but there’s no way for them to prove it. 

A BBC article that claims to prove “phones that secretly listen to us are a myth” is another good example. The study referenced therein was certainly more scientific than the aforementioned ones: phones were placed in a room where audio ads for cat and dog food adverts were played on a loop for 30 minutes. Two identical control phones were placed in a silent room. They kept all the usual suspect apps open with all permissions set to on and ran the experiment for three days, keeping an eye out for related ads and monitoring battery usage and data consumption.

At the end of the experiment, they had not seen any related pet food ads nor the type of data and battery consumption that would suggest transmitting data to another source. And while you could say this infers our phones aren’t recording and transmitting information, it’s far from hard proof. Can listening apps tell the difference between a recorded ad and a human voice? Can they recognize when speech is on a loop and as a result disregard it? Not that cut and dry, is it?

The character Gin Rummy from 'The Boondocks' next to the quote 'the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.'

The best we can do is look at the evidence as well as consider possible alternative explanations. In fact, let’s look at some of those now and consider their likelihood.

Tech Giant explanation one: it’s a total coincidence

Yeah, and I’m Taylor Swift. Just look at this interview Gayle King did with Instagram head Adam Mosseri – when he mentions “dumb luck” as a possible reason for these ads showing up, it’s painfully clear not even he believes what he’s saying. 

Tech Giant explanation two: recency bias

Another possibility Mosseri and others bring up is recency bias. In short, this is the phenomenon of people most easily remembering or noticing topics that have been mentioned or they’ve come across recently. So although you’re getting a slew of ads for things you haven’t been thinking of or talking about, the one ad for that product you mentioned yesterday is going to seem like a shocking anomaly. Also, in our ultra-connected world, it’s quite possible that these topics didn’t appear out of thin air. You may not have searched it, but you (or even a friend) may have briefly clicked through a related page or briefly stopped scrolling at an on-topic ad. Which brings us to perhaps the most salient point:

Tech Giant explanation three: the algorithms used for ad targeting are way more advanced than we think they are

Russel Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind' looking at screens full of complex equations

When I first heard this one, it definitely sounded like a convenient cop-out. After looking into it, however, let me tell you: that stuff is insane. Up until now, my understanding of targeted ads was they were chosen as a result of websites we’d visited and content we’d interacted with. That, my friends, is just the tip of the very creepy iceberg. Continuing the focus on Facebook, ol’ Zuckerberg’s creation knows your recent purchases, things you’ve considered purchasing, the places you’ve been and who else was there, your favorite music and other entertainment, and way more. How much more? It’s hard to say, even for the tech developers involved, as the AI has become so advanced it’s sometimes unclear exactly how algorithms make certain choices (insert Skynet reference here). And remember: while Facebook may be extra creepy due to the additional information we readily offer, it’s far from the only one tracking us.

What blew my mind the most, however, was the discovery that ads could be targeted to us not just as a result of our behavior, but also that of our friends and family. It turns out tech companies and advertisers are cross-referencing our data with that of people we interact with in order to further increase their chances of showing us something we’ll want. And that could very well impact the appearance of phone-listening. 

Say you talked to your aunt about ceramic cooking pots. You certainly haven’t searched for it before and didn’t after the conversation either. Your aunt went searching the second she got home though and bought one through Amazon. Through geotagging of the cute photo you two took that night, Instagram knows you were with your aunt just before she went and bought this marvel of non-stick kitchenware. “Gee,” Skynet-y algorithm says to itself, “maybe you were both considering it and you need a little reminder.” Voila, an ad for a product you only chatted about appears.  

Yikes. Well, I guess that settles it. Our phones don’t spy on us and I can quit worrying about it.

I definitely wouldn’t guarantee that. 

God, you’re infuriating. 

I know, but at the end of the day, the fact is that unscrupulous parties could spy on us and use our private data in a number of ways. And that includes listening in on us. Earlier this year, hackers installed surveillance software onto a number of users’ phones by ringing them through WhatsApp. The affected users didn’t even have to answer the call. The spyware was developed by a company that ostensibly sells it only to governments and legal enforcement, but clearly, someone else got their hands on it. 

Meanwhile, a cybersecurity firm built an app in a couple of days for a BBC news story (man, BBC loves this topic) that surreptitiously transcribed speech uttered in the vicinity of the phone it was installed on. Even the security expert himself noted he was less cynical about the possibility of similar apps being used after discovering how simple it was to build.

So what’s the verdict, other than I should get off the grid and move to a mountain cabin? 

While it’s not by any means impossible, logic seems to dictate it’s improbable companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google are spying on us through our phones in order to help advertisers better target ads. As Lifehacker points out, it would be extremely hard to hide with this much scrutiny, and the logistics of doing so would be extremely taxing and difficult to the point of diminishing returns. But most importantly (and most disturbingly) – with the information they already have, they just plain don’t need to. 

Just by being online, we offer up a massive amount of personal information to parties interested in that sort of thing. If you’re concerned about privacy but still want to use these apps, it’s up to you to limit how much gets out there. Learn about the privacy and security settings of your apps and devices. Install ad blockers and other software that blocks activity trackers. If you think tech companies, hackers or Big Brother are listening in, turn off mic permissions in your apps.

Are our phones listening to us? For many of us, constantly. But we can take steps to be fairly sure anything they hear goes in one robot ear and out the other.