Are Our Phones Listening to Us?

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Have you ever talked about traveling somewhere with a friend, only to have flight advertisements pop up as you scroll through Facebook when you haven’t even typed it into your browser yet?  Or, have you ever mentioned buying a new television, then seen a multitude of ads for the latest and greatest TVs as you’re on your favorite news website, despite the fact that you haven’t even started shopping for them online yet? Chances are this has been happening to you more and more frequently lately — so much so that you might think that your phone is listening in on you. Many people are starting to suspect that their smartphones are eavesdropping on casual conversations and collecting data to gain insight on what consumers want, then using that data to create targeted advertisements. But is this true?  

We all know that the technology for your devices to listen to you already exists. Amazon, Google, and Apple all have virtual assistant devices which use voice command to do everything from schedule appointments to buy more laundry detergent. However, the industry and experts deny that these devices consistently listen in on conversations without being initiated with phrases “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google.”   As it turns out, you may be overestimating how much power your phone and other devices actually hold. Recording and analyzing the content of millions of people’s conversations would not only be time-consuming but also very costly. Facebook has made an official statement in which they deny listening in on conversations through phone microphones to gather information. Google has also said that it does not use phone microphones to listen in on users, and has even declared that they have stopped reading emails in order to promote and protect the privacy of users. These sites, however, are still free to use your search history and interests to target ads to you. In addition, they use the data of other individuals who are like you — people with the same age, gender, location and interests as you — to better advertise to you. Sites can also use your purchase history to predict what you might be interested in buying next. Algorithms are getting better and better at understanding what people are thinking and what they are interested in, even if they may not yet have typed it into their phones.   So, while it may seem incredibly creepy that your phone seems to know what you’re thinking or saying before you actually type it into your search browser, rest assured that it is most likely not getting this information by listening in on your conversations.

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