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Is Your Phone Listening to You?

The short answer is yes. Have you ever had a face to face conversation about something only to open your phone and see an ad for that same object pop up? Coincidence or creepy? Your phone is in fact listening in on your conversations, especially if you have default settings configured. The inbuilt microphone in our phones is frequently recording what we say, storing this voice data in servers and then using it for marketing purposes, for example, to show ads based on your interests. Read on for more information on this and what you can do to prevent it from happening.

I hear you asking, ‘but can they even do that’? Once again, the answer is yes. It is unfortunately legal and we often give permission when we accept the user agreements while downloading applications onto our phone. Hidden among the details in these user agreements is stated that recorded audio may be used for targeted advertising purposes. This behavior is what allows tech companies to further infringe on our privacy boundaries by bombarding us with customized advertising.

There are other sources that claim that apps such as Facebook and Instagram do not use recorded voice data for tailor-made advertising and instead, a trigger is needed such as ‘Hey Siri’ or ‘Okay Google’ to even launch the recording. However, there could be thousands of triggers and no one actually knows specifically what most of them are. When this data is recorded, it is sent in encrypted form from the apps, so it is very difficult to define an exact trigger according to Dr. Peter Hannay, the senior security consultant from Asterisk.

What Can You Do to Prevent This Happening?

The biggest vulnerability concerning recording and security on your smartphone is the ‘always-on’ configuration of voice assistants. Google has openly stated that when clients use the “OK Google” voice assistant on their smartphones, that questions and requests are recorded and the transcripts subsequently saved. You should therefore start by turning this feature off with Siri on iPhones or Google on Android devices. Here’s how:

On iPhones: Open up your Settings > Siri & Search and toggle Listen for “Hey Siri” to Off.
On Android: You can open the assistant settings by either saying “OK Google” or tapping on the phone’s Home button then selecting the File drawer icon and finally the menu (3 dots). Finally select More > Settings. Scroll down to devices selecting your phone and toggle the switch beside Google Assistant off.

The voice assistant settings alone are unfortunately not going to be enough protection for apps such as Facebook as they can make exceptions so you should go a step further with your microphone settings to really limit the amount anyone can listen to you. Here we will show you how to turn off permissions for Facebook but the risks are the same with any app that uses the microphone so we recommend following the same procedure for those too.

On iPhones:
1) Settings > Facebook and toggle the Microphone to the off position.
2) Settings > Privacy > Microphone > Facebook and toggle the switch to off.

On Android: Settings > Applications > Application Manager. Find App Permissions and toggle the microphone off.

Remember that turning off permissions for the microphone on Facebook will affect certain features such as live videos etc so you will have to go through the same procedure as above to undo it.

Beware of Other Sources

It’s not just your smartphone with its camera and audio recording capabilities that make it a goldmine of sources for advertisers, the FBI has warned consumers that Smart TVs can be used by hackers to watch and record you.

If you’ve bought a TV in recent years, it’s most likely a smart TV which connects to the internet and many newer models come with built-in microphones and cameras. This is in order to connect to your virtual assistant, avail of the hands free functions and for facial recognition to know who is watching and what programs the tv should suggest. We can now also video call with family and friends via our TV but what risk is this posing to our security?

According to leading tech experts at the FBI, whilst hackers may have a harder time accessing our laptops and PCs thanks to security measures most computer users have in place (if you haven’t protected your computer, read how to protect your personal data and check out the best free antivirus softwares for advice), our smart TVs may be the new loophole hackers have been waiting for. Providing easy access through our routers, at best they can remotely control our TVs by changing channels, showing inappropriate content and changing other functions and at worst turn our TVs (those in the bedroom!) into recording and stalking devices!

How to Protect Yourself

  • Inform yourself about your TV model and all features and functions offered. Pay close attention to check for all areas including microphones, cameras and privacy/security.
  • Customize as many settings as possible, including changing passwords (don’t keep the default suggestions), turning off microphones and camera access wherever possible.
  • Check all details of your privacy policy for your TV and any streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, etc you are subscribed to. Make sure you know what data they collect and what they are authorized to do with it.
  • Finally, make sure you know about any automatic system updates and security patches that come with them.

Image: © Unsplash.com


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2 vote - 5.0/5

Great advice; thanks.

Your info has been enlightening, and I will certainly act on it .