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Security & privacy

You’re not paranoid, your phone really IS listening to EVERYTHING you say

Have you ever had an ad show up on your screen about something you were just discussing with friends or coworkers? How about suddenly seeing a sponsored Facebook posts about products and services you were just talking about with your co-workers?

Are these mere coincidences or a result of all the tracking algorithms that tend to follow us all around nowadays? Or … are our devices listening to us?

One researcher says, nope, it’s no coincidence: Your smartphone is definitely listening to everything you say.

Your smartphone spies on you, but maybe not the way you think

Back in the summer of 2018, a reporter for the online site Vice conducted an experiment to see if his phone was listening to his conversations. For five days in a row and two times daily, he uttered phrases to his phone and monitored his Facebook feed for changes, specifically for sponsored posts.

He said the changes to his Facebook ad content “came literally overnight.” He tested phrases like “going back to the university” and later saw ads for mid-semester university courses, and after he said “I need some cheap shirts,” he saw ads for cheap apparel.

The Verge’s article got a lot of press and even inspired more scientific studies to test the secret listening abilities of smartphones.

A group of researchers from Northeastern University tested the theory. They weren’t able to prove or disprove whether our phones are listening (they found no evidence of recorded conversations), but they make an unexpected finding. Apps installed on smartphones have the ability to record your screen and whatever you type, including user names and passwords.

Your voice triggers smart speakers and smartphones

Your smartphone is similar to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home — they listen for “wake” words like “Hey Siri” and “Okay Google” all the time.

These wake words are required 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 say the manufacturers.

If this temporary voice data is not going anywhere, then what’s the problem? In some cases, third-party apps like Facebook or Instagram may still have access to this local data.

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 listening to you without your knowledge legal?

Using voice tracking for marketing purposes is legal because 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.

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:

What to do to make your phone stop listening to you

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.

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