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Does My Phone Listen to My Conversation for Advertising?

Ever seen an ad that makes you wonder if your phone is listening? Smartphones do pick up audio in your environment, but it’s not the same as listening to your conversations unless you’ve activated a voice assistant. We’ve done the research and broken down everything you should know about your smartphone’s listening and data collection capabilities.

How Does my Phone ‘Listen’ to Me?

When you sign up for a new social media platform like Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter, you provide some personal information to help them optimize your user experience. Sign-up information could include selecting interests like fashion, science, and travel, as well as providing your age and location or signing up for email marketing

Of course, marketers can use this information to drive personalized ads, but they can also improve your platform experience. Part of what makes social media so enjoyable is that it’s catered to you as an individual. For the most part, you can be sure that your phone is recording anything you say to Siri, but it’s probably not recording you otherwise since you’re providing tons of useful information in other ways. 

Another way these platforms keep you coming back is by using cookies. Websites use cookies to track behavior while on a company’s website (which products you click on, how much time you spend reading blogs, etc.). 

What you may not know is that cookies keep tracking you after you leave the site. Marketers are interested in all of your online behavior, so the longer they track you, the more they can learn. In January of 2020, Google announced it would remove third-party cookies from its platform by 2022, mostly in response to user outrage. Most people don’t realize that the time you spent on social media is also being tracked and that information is being used the same way – to get to know the consumer.

In 2018, The New York Times reported Facebook’s partnerships with different data companies, including Cambridge Analytica. It detailed the numerous ways in which Facebook sells user-data to various companies for marketing and other purposes, so how far does the tracking actually go? The advent of Voice-Activated Assistants like Siri and Alexa has led consumers to question how much Apple and Amazon are listening. 

In 2019 Apple admitted to listening to Siri conversations for grading and improvement purposes only; Google and Facebook have denied storing audio information when the assistants are not engaged. Not only would it end up being mostly ambient noise and insignificant audio to comb through, but the process of analysis would mostly be wasted time (when the companies have other, more efficient ways to collect data). 

So if your phone isn’t actually listening all the time, why does it feel that way? 

Believe it or not, it’s probably because your digital footprint can tell a company what you want before you even know you want it. Your footprint is a combination of everything you’ve ever done online and can help marketers discern your interests and behaviors, as well as predict future purchases. Every moment of your online behavior is tracked and logged, and that massive wealth of information makes it easy for tech companies and marketers to extrapolate actionable insights. 

If you’re going to be worried about your phone listening in, be wary of third-party apps that may secretly collect and sell audio, video, and photos without your knowledge. A 2018 study by Northeastern Professor David Choffnes found that 9,000 of 17,000 Android apps could take screenshots of a user’s phone without explicit permission, so your privacy concerns aren’t entirely unfounded.

The Types of Data the Internet Collects

Social and search platforms collect different types of data about you as an individual:

  • Personal Data: Basic information used to define you like name, age, location, and gender.
  • Engagement Data: Actionable interest and interaction with brands through clicks, shares, and social media mentions. 
  • Behavioral Data: Includes your search history, purchase actions, and time spent on a page.
  • Attitudinal Data: This type of data is qualitative and measures satisfaction, likelihood to buy, and purchase criteria.

How Do Advertisers Use My Data?

Advertisers are using your data in a variety of ways. Of course, it helps make your experience as a consumer better. TV ads cater to what they think viewers were most interested in (i.e., toy commercials on kids’ channels, weight loss pills during reality TV show breaks, etc.), but most viewers don’t care. 

Online ads can be perfectly tailored to you, targeting specific ads to things in which you’ve shown interest. By using targeted ads, businesses are sure to increase profits because they market their products and services to the most likely buyers. 

Big data, AI and algorithms

One of the reasons online ads are so effective is that they pull from billions of user data pieces. Combined, we can learn a lot about how people shop online and even predict some of their behaviors. 

By developing machine learning and artificial intelligence software, platforms that collect user data can use algorithms to extract meaningful, actionable data points. Instagram’s algorithm, for example, boosts posts that feature seminude content because it regularly gains the most interaction from users. In theory, bikini and lingerie companies should then post photos of models wearing their products rather than showing them on hangers.  

Response From Advertisers and Tech Companies

Tech companies have been understandably hesitant to admit to selling and purchasing user data for ads. Facebook and Google have vehemently denied their analysis and use of ambient noise to send targeted ads and claim the data isn’t being stored in the first place (unless prompted by the help of a Voice-Activated Assistant). 

How to Stop My Phone From ‘Listening’

If you’d prefer to opt-out of being susceptible to unwanted recordings once and for all, change your smartphone’s privacy settings. 

How to Change Your Privacy Settings on iPhones

  1. Go to Settings > Siri & Search.
  2. Toggle off Listen for “Hey Siri”, Press Side Button for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked.
  3. Tap on Turn Off Siri in the pop-up.

How to Change Your Privacy Settings on Android Phones

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Select Google > Account Services > Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice.
  3. Select Voice Match and toggle off “Hey Google”.

Protecting Your Data Privacy On A Smartphone

Don’t let yourself get fooled. These companies want you to agree to their terms before realizing they might infringe on your privacy. It’s why they make signing up with Facebook so easy – it gives the data companies access to your behavior on each account as well as your page. If you’re concerned about protecting your data, read through the permissions granted on your apps and pay special attention to those with access to your camera or microphone. 

Do yourself a favor and check what permissions you’ve given to each of your apps. Go to your phone’s Settings > Privacy > Camera/Microphone and take a look at which ones have access to your phone. If you have an Android, go to Settings > Apps > and check each specific app. 

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