Is it possible that your smartphone is listening to you?

by Kate Norton
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Have you ever had a feeling your phone is constantly recording your conversations and then selects highly personalised advertisements for you? On the one hand, it sounds like some pretty advanced theory of conspiracy. On the other hand, sometimes the adds popping up in your Internet browser are going a way beyond services or items related to your previous searches or even information selected about oneself in your social network accounts.

So many smartphone users have become rather concerned once they saw the advertisements of goods they have never been interested in at all. It just happened that some rather short time prior to receding these adds, they had mentioned these goods in their conversations.

Is it really possible that your smartphone is recording your conversations and is then using it for picking adds for you? Let’s try to find an answer to this question together.

Can your device really listen to you?

There is no doubt in the ability of your phone or a tablet computer to listen to your conversations. Furthermore, it can listen to other sounds surrounding you, for example, music or noises which can give the algorithms a hint of where you are or what you are doing. As a result, this can give a lot of further suggestions about what kind of products or services you might be interested in the future.

The problem with such data collection is not only a creepy advertisement personalisation. It is also a possibility of identifying people, especially if they exchanging some sensitive information while speaking to each other. Needless to say, this happens to people almost all the time.

For example, in 2019 a collection of a thousand of voice recordings harvested by Google Assistant were leaked to VRT News which is a popular media outlet in Belgium. The amount of sensitive data contained in these recordings was enough for identifying the owners of these voices.

Although Google claims the collected voice recordings are not connected to the Google accounts, actually, it not thus important, since they have enough data for identifying recorded people.

It is totally obvious that your device can really listen to you. Whether it is through the assistances in which these devices are equipped, for example, Google Assistant, or through multiple apps which require access to your microphone in order to function on your device properly, your phone can really record and collect your audio data.

Some software developers specialising in cybersecurity even tried to build their own simple programmes based entirely on the functionality of the Android operating system for tracking the conversations of the smartphone users or, speaking exactly, capturing all the sounds in the close proximity to the device. Such programmes can analyse the sound and then show it on the screen as a text information. All of that is possible with minimum usage of the device battery.

What are companies saying about such practices?

Even though all of these things are pretty possible, both Facebook and Google deny using data of the users of their apps in such a way. For instance, Facebook claims it doesn’t allow any brands to advertise their goods or services in its apps if the information was collected by recording the conversations.

Whether you believe them or not, is up to you. Actually, some basic regulation of the usage of the audio materials have already evolved. For example, some regulations of this kind are specified in Google developer policy.

How can you protect yourself from apps listening to your conversations?

One of the basic thing you can do is to block some apps on your phone from using a microphone. Still, although this is the most obvious thing, it might not be thus easy to achieve. In point of fact, almost every modern app requires access to your personal data or tools such as your photo gallery or your microphone in order to work properly. Actually, you can’t even use them at all if you don’t give the such a generous permission. Sometimes, requiring such permissions look more than suspicious. For instance, is there really any legitimate reason for a calculator app or the game of chess to have access to your microphone or camera?

Even though it seems totally lacking any sense, you will find more and more apps with such requirements no matter whether they are looking like trustworthy products offered by leading and respected developing companies or they are obviously some fishy apps with rather small ratings.

When it comes to the apps offered by Google, you might have some difficulties by blocking them since the entire Android operating system is closely connected with these programmes.

That is why another option you can use for protecting yourself, is resigning from using Google completely. It might sounds like a mission of a sci-fi book or film, but it is actually possible.

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