phone listening in?

Shhhh … is your smartphone selling your secrets?

By Hannah Wild on 2nd April 2019

Do you ever get the feeling that your phone can read your mind? Well, there’s a good chance that your paranoia may be justified. I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as a secret anymore!

There is a conspiracy theory which has long been fuelled in the online community that our smartphones are listening in to our daily conversations, and that the data collected is being used to target adverts towards us without our knowledge. Although nothing is proven – in fact, likely culprits for such activity like Google and Facebook have categorically denied doing so – these conspiracy theories and personal accounts of coincidental advertising make it hard to ignore the possibility that more of our personal information is being held on us than we realise.

Consider how often you start typing into Google’s search bar and it pre-emptively suggests the result that you were looking for. Have you started seeing adverts for something, say flights to Rome, on your social media streams shortly after you’ve spoken about that very thing with a friend? Many conspiracists believe that this isn’t just down to clever algorithms and predictive search, but rather apps on your mobile phone accessing the microphone and listening in.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has the power to analyse and convert audio files to text ‘strings’, has the potential for both innovating and invading our everyday lives. The convenience offered through your apps learning about your personal preferences and regular habits can be great. I know for one, I have my smartphone on me most of the time and recently I have started receiving Google Map notifications when I leave the office at night to let me know how long it will take me to get home after picking up my partner from his central Douglas office.

According to The Telegraph, Brits aged over 24 years spend on average 2 hours and 49 minutes a day on their phone – and these are just the conscious interactions we carry out. The idea that our phones, which we carry around with us all day, every day, are listening to our conversations and taking note of our movements seems to be gaining more traction even though many scientific tests have discounted this.

Now, we are not completely in Big Brother territory just yet. The amount of data storage required to track and process every word of smartphone users’ conversations globally would be unfathomable. Facebook claims that constant audio surveillance would produce 33 times more data than they need to consume each day, apparently, they already hold enough data on us as it is!

In March 2018, Members of the House of Commons heard from Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie who claimed that it is not just the spoken word that could be recorded. He believes that background audio could be analysed continuously so that your phone could work out where you are and what you are doing. It could, for example, establish whether you are in an office environment, out and about, or at home watching TV.

Smartphones already provide app developers access to a huge amount of data on us without the need to listen to our conversations. However, the data collected via smartphones is not sold on to third parties as you might expect. In fact, it can be more profitable (and legal) for data processing companies such as Facebook, to keep it secure, especially in the post-GDPR era.

In the past, there wasn’t anything to stop tech companies approaching potential advertisers with a proposition such as, “Here’s a list of people in your target demographic, give us money and you can access them.”

Now, their proposition is closer to, “Give us money and we will make sure that your target demographic or those interested will potentially see your advert”. No data is handed out to third parties, but it is utilised in a way that we see what businesses believe is relevant to us. GDPR states that individuals (in Europe) must have access to any data held about them, and that they should always opt-in to this type of marketing (and be opted-out by default). However, in reality, it’s likely that many companies are playing catch-up with the new legislation.

Although to some this may seem like an invasion of privacy, what we are seeing today is simply an evolution of advertising that we have been used to on television for decades. The difference now is rather than targeting prime-time audiences broadly, companies can exploit our web-browsing and online consumer habits to personalise advertising. Unless you are in a profession dealing with highly sensitive information, while this approach might feel a bit creepy to some people, it shouldn’t pose any immediate threat.

So where are the conspiracy theories around our smartphones coming from? Personally, I like the explanation provided by Android Authority that the law of large numbers is to blame for our suspicions. This tech blog suggests that “even with sophisticated targeted advertising, we skip past hundreds of ads each day that don’t seem relevant to us. It only takes one eerily accurate ad experience to convince us that someone must have gleaned some insider information. It’s the same phenomenon that convinces people vague physic readings and horoscopes are related to their lives — one accurate coincidence is enough to overwrite the countless misses.”

For those of you with a more suspicious disposition, fear not, you can rule out the possibility of the apps on your smartphone from listening in to future conversations. Simply head over to your apps & notifications settings on your phone, and in there you can switch off your microphone within the app’s profile. Although it might not completely eliminate your susceptibility to targeted advertising, it will discourage your phone’s audio being collected, converted into valuable data and then used to sell you stuff!

Once you’ve done that you can sit back, relax and speak freely about that dream break to Rome!