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Is My Phone Listening to Me?

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Have you ever talked about a product or topic only to start seeing ads on your phone about that very same item or subject shortly after? This kind of ad targeting brings all new meaning to the word smartphone. It can feel invasive, and you may even wonder it it's illegal. In this article we answer the question is my phone listening to me and explain what you can do about it.

Is Your Phone Listening to You? Here's What You Need to Know

The short answer: Yes, your phone can hear you. And yes, it's listening. But it's not as scary as it sounds.

Cell phones aren't recording and storing your conversations somewhere for carriers to pry in on your personal life. Most phone listening is done through voice assistant apps. For Apple iPhones, that's Siri, while Google Assistant serves Android phone users. 

Whenever you give a voice command to Siri or Google, you tell the app to do something for you, such as call someone or answer a question. To respond to your command, your phone must actively listen to what are called the "wake" words — your "Hey Siri" or "OK Google'' phrases that activate the voice service. 

Voice assistant apps aside, you may be wondering whether your phone is continuously listen for advertising purposes. While the phone itself isn't listening, the apps you've downloaded and have open may well be. For example, if you’re scrolling through Instagram posts while talking about a sweater you like, you could start seeing ads for similar sweaters. In this case, whether you realize it or not, you’ve given Instagram microphone access and have certain privacy settings enabled.

Any time you download or update an app, there are terms and conditions you accept that give consent for the developers to collect data, including audio. Combine that with user activity, search history, and other online tracking, and you now have a pretty robust customer profile, which personalizes your ads while on Facebook, Instagram, Google, or any other site. 

Understanding Different Kinds of Listening 

Now that you know if your phone is listening to you and why, let's transition to the "how." As we mentioned earlier, your phone listens to you through voice assistants. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how.

Voice Assistants 

As we covered above, whether it's Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, voice assistant tools are powered by wake words. Through your phone or other device, they actively listen until they hear the "Hey Siri," "Alexa," or "OK Google."

Once awoken and activated, your phone starts recording and sending that audio data to the cloud — encrypting it to ensure privacy. After processing the request, your voice assistant performs the command. 

Luckily, with commands to virtual assistants, you don’t need to worry about eavesdropping. Up until you summon the assistant app, your phone is only listening for the wake word. 

How to Know If Your Phone or Phone Apps Are Listening to You 

As mentioned, your phone is always actively listening through the voice assistants, awaiting the wake word. However, you will have to check permission settings on your Apple or Android device for other apps. Any application that has access to your microphone was, at some point, granted permission to listen for ad or data mining purposes. 

Is My Phone Listening to Me Legally? 

So my phone is listening to me. Fine. But is it legal? In most cases, yes. Let's break it down: 

Legal Listening 

You know those long terms and conditions you probably didn't read when you got a new phone, enrolled in a new cell phone plan, or downloaded an app? Those can give legal consent to listening. Deep somewhere in the text is language about how the phone manufacturer or app developer will collect your data via audio recording or other means. 

It'll also lay out specific privacy policies by the company. For instance, they outline how they'll collect the data, the duration they can keep it, how it will be used, and that you can opt out via your mobile privacy and permission settings.  

In these cases, it's completely legal for your phone to listen to you.   

How to Stop My Phone from Listening to Me

Can you protect yourself from the legal kind of listening? Depending on your priorities, you could disable listening features by turning off the voice assistant or removing microphone permissions from each app.   

How to Disable Listening Features 

Turning Off iPhone Siri

  1. Go to "Settings"
  2. Select "Siri & Search" settings 
  3. Under "Ask Siri," turn off each option: "Listen for 'Hey Siri," "Press Side Button for Siri," "Allow Siri When Locked"
  4. Once you see the pop-up, select "Turn Off Siri."

Disabling iPhone App Microphone by App

  1.  Go to "Settings"
  2. Scroll down and click the app you wish to disable (Note: Not every app has a "Microphone" setting option)
  3. Click the green bar next to "Microphone" to disable  

Turning Off Android Google Assistant 

  1. Go to "Settings" 
  2. Ask Google Assistant by saying, "Hey Google, Open Assistant Settings" 
  3. Select "General" in the options 
  4. Click the blue bar next to "Google Assistant" to disable 

Consequences of Disabling 

While great for privacy, keep in mind the consequences of disabling phone listening features. You won't be able to use voice assistants like Siri or Google Assistant to complete tasks for you on command. You'll also miss out on certain apps. For example, specific apps like Snapchat require microphone access to use any of the tools.   

Illegal Listening 

Conversely, unauthorized listening is illegal, whether through a mobile app or the phone hardware itself. This typically happens when someone downloads a suspicious app or file on their phone that contains spyware. It's then used to collect user information from a device for malicious purposes. This type of eavesdropping was federally outlawed back in the 80s through The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). 

Federal and state governments have been cracking down on such practices and have enacted stricter rules to protect individuals better, even from legal listening and data mining. Currently, 12 active state data privacy laws are on the books, with many more on the way. 

Spyware and Malware 

Once downloaded to your phone via email attachment or a web link, spyware can wreak havoc on your privacy. Using the device's microphone, an adversary can listen to and record conversations without you even knowing. While important sensitive personal data like social security numbers or credit card numbers don't often come up in casual conversation, it's still possible. Hackers and other cybersecurity threats could exploit that information to cause harm like identity theft, fraud, or blackmail. 

Protecting Yourself 

The good news is that it's possible to safeguard yourself from illegal phone listening. Here are a few strategies to follow:

  • Keep apps up-to-date: Most of the time, updates are security patches and vulnerability fixes that protect users, including illegal listening. 
  • Stick to the official app stores: Google Play and Apple's App Store do their own security vetting to keep malicious apps off your phone that may threaten your privacy.
  • Update your operating system (OS): In addition to fixing security vulnerabilities, updates to phone OS systems, such as iOS and Android OS, let you keep the built-in anti-malware up-to-date so you can protect from recent spyware. 
  • Check app permissions: You can minimize risk by only granting a few apps microphone access. 
  • Cover the microphone: If the other measures fail, you can ensure privacy by covering the bottom of your phone with stickers, tape, or other material. This will also mean you can’t use your microphone for calls, however.

Is My Phone Listening to Me for Ads?

We've briefly touched on phone listening related to seeing ads for something you were just talking about. With this being the most apparent signal that phones are collecting your data, let's analyze and answer the big question: Is my phone listening to me for ads, or is it a misconception? 

Any application with microphone access can legally listen to you while that app is open. And as long as the developer stays within the legal parameters of the privacy agreement, they can sell your data to advertisers for marketing purposes.  

But behavioral targeting goes far and beyond audio listening. There are plenty of data sources that can pull insights and create personalized ad campaigns without your phone listening to you:

  • Shopping history
  • Google searches
  • Social media activity
  • Demographic profile
  • Location 
  • User activity online or within applications 

So to continue from our example from earlier, what if you are scrolling Instagram but don't speak aloud about that cute sweater you're admiring in your feed? You might still see ads for it soon after because Instagram can see how long you view a post featuring said sweater, if you like it or comment on it, or if you search for the brand later on Google. 

The Bottom Line 

Is your phone listening? Is it for ads? Is it legal? As we've covered, the answer is yes to all the above. While you can turn off microphone permission on any apps, as well as disable voice assistants to make sure what you say remains between you and your own four walls, what you do online will still be fair game for advertisers. The choice is yours—enjoy the convenience of being able to say Hey Siri or Okay Google and all that your favorite social media apps have to offer or shut it down in the name of privacy.

Worried your phone might be infected with spyware that is illegally listening to you? That can be harder to fix. If you need a new cell phone, our free, unbiased Phone Deal Finder below can help you find and compare the best phone deals you qualify for based on your needs in a matter of seconds.

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