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Could Your Smartphone Be Feeding Businesses Your Personal Data?

We’ve all been there. You’re on your lunch break with a friend and discuss their new watch or jewellery and before you know it every ad on social media is from the brand your friend just bought from. Is it a coincidence? 

The answer to this depends on who you’re asking. While there’s no doubt that modern smartphones have been designed to listen to you, the notion that brands are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to advertise their products is subject to debate. 

“There have been fringe cases where apps have been found to turn up your mic,” acknowledged Mariano delli Santi, legal and policy officer at Open Rights Group. “But the point is, advertisers don’t need to listen to know everything about you.”

With behavioural data online already helping businesses to highlight our likes, dislikes, demographics, and purchase intention based on our browsing activities, could advertisers also be listening in to our conversations?

As the advertising industry develops, the notion of using huge data reservoirs to record our conversations all day in the hope of fresh insights seems fanciful–so why are so many of us so sure that advertisers are using our private conversations? Let’s find out.

Our Phones are Listening

Let’s look at the facts surrounding our smartphones. The reality is that both iPhones and Android phones are programmed to listen to us constantly. When we ask Siri a question, we’re used to getting a swift response. 

Siri’s access to our microphone is entirely consensual making it entirely legal for our smartphones to listen when we talk to check whether it’s being prompted. However, Siri isn’t the only app that asks for access to our microphones. 

For iPhone users, going into your Settings menu and clicking ‘Privacy & Security’ and then ‘Microphone’ will provide a list of every app that asks for access to your microphone. For Android, this option falls under the ‘Privacy’ menu and ‘Permissions Manager’. 

Browser apps like Google Chrome, social networking apps like Instagram and TikTok, and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger all ask for permission to use our smartphone microphones. Although this is understandable with all apps capable of recording speech for social content, live chats, and voice notes, it’s harder to be sure of what else is being recorded without scrolling through hours of Terms and Conditions. 

How Can Businesses Listen Into Our Conversations?

Not directly, no. It’s unlikely that advertisers will have pumped money into using huge data reservoirs to record our conversations all day in the hope of fresh insights.

However, using platforms like Instagram and TikTok that have open permission to tap into a user’s microphone is more likely the case. Most businesses set up a number of trigger phrases that release an ad onto a user’s screen when activated.

This can be done via text, hashtag, or vocal use of the phrase, and can often be responsible for why we see ads pop up on our phone after a long browsing session regarding a similar topic. 

VICE reporter Sam Nichols tested this theory using two trigger phrases in an attempt to get ads to appear on his phone. His phrases were; “I’m thinking about going back to uni” and “I need some cheap shirts for work,” these were repeated constantly over the course of a day. 

With no surprise, the next day he found Facebook advertising new courses at local universities and a number of cheap clothing stores popping up on his feed. 

How Do Businesses Use Consumer Conversations?

Businesses are always looking for new ways to get to know their consumers. With more competition in the e-commerce sector than ever before, those closest to their demographic are likely to make the sale.

If an advertiser catches a trigger phrase, they know that you’re looking to invest in something similar to their product.

With this information, they can take a few steps:

  • Place an ad on your social feed: If you’re discussing the possibility of buying a new watch, you’re a key lead for a business selling watches.
  • Personalise their content: If a business sees that a particular trigger word is being used more often, they may create new content surrounding a specific product to help generate more engagement.
  • Offer discounts: If you’re already a subscriber/follower or long-term customer of a brand online, you’re more likely to purchase once again. Therefore, your use of a trigger word/phrase may encourage a business to send you personalised promotional ads and emails with discount codes and offers.

 

How To Stop A Business Listening Into Your Conversation

The easiest way to prevent our smartphones from listening in to our conversations is to remove access to the microphone for apps that we’re unsure of. 

Let’s have a closer look at how you can stop advertisers from retrieving personal information from your conversations. 

Stopping Permissions

As we touched on before, accessing the ‘Privacy & Security’ menu within our iPhone settings and then ‘Microphone’ will show a list of all apps using our microphone alongside a toggle. Simply turning the toggle off for the apps we want to prevent listening in will block their access to our voices. 

For Android users, a similar system exists within ‘Privacy’ > ‘Permissions Manager’

Phone privacy settings

 

You can also stop voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant from listening to your voice by going to Settings > Siri & Search and de-selecting the ‘Listen for “Hey Siri”’ option for iOS or by going to Settings > Google > Settings for Google apps > Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice > Voice Match and de-selecting ‘Hey Google’. 

Privacy Policies are Key for Apps

It’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for the privacy policies of the apps you download. If any of them require that they use your microphone it’s reasonable to ask why. 

Although scrolling through privacy policies can seem like an arduous task, it’s imperative that you look at how apps use your microphone and that you’re agreeing to the permissions that you’re expecting. 

By accepting the terms and conditions of the apps you download, you’re allowing them to legally conduct any of the data gathering that they’ve specified within the document. This means that if you discover that they’re eavesdropping on your conversations for marketing or nefarious purposes, you won’t legally be able to protect your privacy. 

Using a VPN Masks Your Behavioural Data

Your audio conversations may be used alongside other actions by apps to build a vast reservoir of behavioural data connected to your online identity. 

We can see behavioural data in its clearest form through the ads we’re exposed to. Whether a voice query, private conversation, or our browsing history has pointed advertisers in our direction, using a VPN can help us disrupt the information available to build our behavioural data and stop third parties seeking to exploit these insights into our likes and dislikes. 

It’s possible to see this in action when it comes to the world of entertainment and streaming services. 

For instance, open-source media platforms like Kodi are excellent resources for accessing entertainment and viewing content from around the web. It’s entirely understandable that users would want to access Kodi for its content without existing geo-locked restrictions or having our smartphones observe our viewing behaviour to bombard us with tailored ads. 

The use of a VPN for Kodi offers access to content without geographical restrictions by offering end-to-end encryption while maintaining a smooth and pleasant browsing experience. Most importantly, these virtual private networks are accessible via smartphones and can keep our devices from building a personal portfolio out of our online behaviour. 

While our microphones could potentially listen into conversations, they will have no behavioural data to attach our private information to. This helps to uphold greater levels of privacy throughout all of our online activities. 

Can’t Trust Your Phone? Block Your Mic

According to a recent report, consumer trust across certain industries has reached remarkable lows. For instance, The 2022 Thales Consumer Digital Trust Index found that 18% of consumers trusted social media companies, 14% had trust in governmental organisations, and just 12% expressed trust in media and entertainment organisations. 

If trust in so many industries is so low, how can we have faith in their responsible use of our microphones?

Should you fall among the vast number of consumers that has little faith in how your data is used, it’s possible to cover your smartphone’s microphone completely using specialist cases that block both cameras and mics until a call is made or received. 

A New Hope for Regulation

The arrival of GDPR and a fresh emphasis on privacy for social media platforms and apps that rely on personal data has shown that regulatory bodies are taking the battle to protect our privacy seriously. 

Although it’s difficult to monitor exactly how our voices are being used, the continued whirlwind of consumer concern about private information is unlikely to slow down now that the age of generative AI is upon us. 

With technology becoming smarter than ever, the value of our voices has never been greater. Let’s hope that regulatory bodies implement greater measures to protect our privacy before it’s lost to our digital eavesdroppers for good. 

 

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