Have you ever had an ad show up on your gadgets about a trip you were just discussing with your friends? How about sponsored Facebook posts about products and services you were just talking about with your co-workers over the water cooler?
Are these mere coincidences or a result of all the tracking algorithms that tend to follow us all around nowadays?
Of course, all these targeted ads can get creepy, too creepy sometimes, and some people are suggesting that this data is being gathered in the sneakiest way - through your smartphone "listening" to your conversations through its microphone!
But is this just a paranoid way of dealing with effective targeted ads?
Have behavioral tracking techniques through location tracking, apps and browser cookies become so highly integrated that they can accurately predict what we might want even without the need for eavesdropping?
Well, based on this new experiment from Vice, nope, it's not a coincidence. You're not being paranoid - your smartphone is definitely listening to everything you say!
Your smartphone spies on you? Tell me about it
Concerned with a few spooky coincidences regarding some creepily accurate Facebook ads he received, Vice reporter Sam Nichols had a simple question "are our smartphones actually listening?"
So Nichols set out to find out. For five days in a row and two times daily, he started uttering phrases to his phone and monitored his Facebook feed for changes, specifically for sponsored posts.
He found out that the changes to his Facebook ad content "came literally overnight" and offers related to his test phrases started showing up in his News Feed.
Not surprisingly, his test phrases like "going back to the university" apparently triggered university ads for mid-semester courses while "I need some cheap shirts" triggered ads for cheap apparel.
How can this be? Didn't Facebook deny these claims a while back?
It turns out, your smartphone is similar to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home - it can also listen to "wake" words like "Hey Siri" and "Okay Google" all the time.
According to Dr. Peter Hannay, a security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk, these word triggers are needed for your smartphone to actually start recording. But without these triggers, your voice inputs are processed only within your smartphone and are not sent anywhere.
So if this temporary voice data is not going anywhere, then what's the problem? Dr. Hannay stated that in some cases, third-party apps like Facebook or Instagram may still have access to this local data and it's up to them if they want to use it or not.
“From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to (other apps like Facebook’s) servers but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are,” Dr. Hannay told Vice.
“Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, (apps) are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”
So similar to how virtual assistants work, it's safe to assume that smartphones listen all the time waiting for the wake word and voice data continuously gets recorded, albeit temporarily, on the gadget itself.
Is this legal?
Dr. Hannay also explained that apps like Facebook could have thousands of these triggers and a simple conversation about a particular product keyword may be enough to activate it.
And guess what? According to Hannay, using voice tracking for marketing purposes is all perfectly legal since the privacy policies and end-user agreements you agreed with plus current laws actually allow it. Since it's a very effective targeted ad tool, it's not a surprise if companies are using it.
“Seeing Google are open about it, I would personally assume the other companies are doing the same.” Dr. Hannay explained. “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.”
Should you be concerned?
This app voice-tracking technology is certainly scary, but the thing is, all these companies really care about is effective advertising. Voice triggering is just yet another available tool, similar to browser cookies and location tracking, they utilize to efficiently target ads.
Privacy dangers exist, of course, but for regular folks, this probably shouldn't be a cause for big concern. Who cares if you're looking for fluffy pillows and ultra-soft bedsheets, right?
However, if you're still concerned about this, I don't blame you. Here are ways to turn off your smartphone's "always-listening" abilities:
Disable "Hey Siri"
Like the Echo, Siri is always attentive, even when you’ve forgotten your iPhone can hear you. With iOS 8, Apple introduced the "Hey Siri" wake phrase, so you can summon Siri without even touching your iPhone. If you turn this feature on, this means your iPhone's mic is always listening, waiting for the phrase "Hey Siri."
Apple says this is processed locally on the device and your iOS device does not start recording your voice until it hears "Hey Siri." Once your request is recorded, it then uploads the audio file to Apple's servers for processing.
But that may still give you the willies, and luckily, you don’t have to disable Siri completely to stop the “Hey Siri” feature. Here’s the easiest way to turn off "Hey Siri:" Navigate to your iOS device's Settings >> General >> Siri, then toggle Allow "Hey Siri" to off.
Disable "Ok Google"
Google wants more voice-activated tech, and the company recently released its latest masterpiece, “OK Google.” This serves as Google’s new wake phrase, just like “Alexa” and “Hey Siri,” calling the attention of Google Assistant on Google Home speakers, Android smartphones, and the Chrome browser.
Every time you use "OK Google" or use another voice-controlled function, your request is recorded and the snippets are saved to your Google account.
Luckily, Google introduced a new My Account tool that lets you access your recordings and delete them if you want. You can also tell Google to stop recording your voice for good.
Here’s how to turn off the "OK Google" wake phrase: On Android, just go to Settings >> Google >> Search & Now >> Voice and turn “OK Google” detection off.
Disable "Hey Cortana"
Finally, there is Cortana, the voice-activated system from Microsoft. Similar to the others on this list, Cortana can answer questions, do searches, set appointments, and open applications. The wake phrase is "Hey Cortana." Just like the others, Cortana has raised some eyebrows.
Here’s how to turn off "Hey Cortana:" Open Cortana on your Windows computer, select the Notebook icon in the right column, click on Settings then toggle "Hey Cortana" to off.
Disable Facebook's mic access
Although all the evidence supporting the allegations that the Facebook app is "listening" through your phone's microphone for advertising purposes is purely anecdotal, it's still your choice if you want to disallow it or any other app from accessing your mic. It's actually quite easy!
If you are an iPhone user, go to Settings >> Facebook >> Settings >> slide the Microphone switch to the left so it turns from green to white. That turns it off.
Alternatively, you can go to Settings >> Privacy >> Microphone >> look for Facebook then do the same. Note that you can toggle the mic on and off for other apps, too.
For Android users: Try Settings >> Applications >> Application Manager >> look for Facebook >> Permissions >> Turn off the mic.
Important: Keep in mind that turning off Facebook's microphone access will affect and disable specific features of the app such as Live Video. If you're going to use these features, you will have to toggle the mic back on.
HOW TO CONTROL YOUR APPS' PERMISSIONS
Do you want more control over what your apps can access? Check out this tip about granting app permissions.