5 Ways your phone apps are "listening" to you

BY Kyle Taylor

25th Apr 2023 Technology

5 Ways your phone apps are "listening" to you

No, you’re not paranoid, your phone apps are “listening” to you. But how is this happening exactly?

We’ve all had that experience. We’re talking to a friend about how we need a new raincoat or have been thinking about a holiday to Greece, then open Instagram and feel like we’re being inundated with ads for the exact same things we were just talking about. We immediately jump to what seems the most obvious conclusion, saying to ourselves, “my phone is listening to me! How else could it know?”

"We’re inundated with ads for the same things we were just talking about. We immediately think, 'my phone is listening to me!'"

In truth, while apps on your phone have been known to tap into your microphone and listen to you, the reality is that their “listening” is far more pernicious than you could ever imagine. We often hear the word “listening” and think only about talking. In the digital world, we “talk” whenever we like a post on Facebook, click an ad on Instagram, or search for directions on Google Maps. Every action we take creates a little piece of data about us that social media companies can “hear.” They’re listening to what we like, what we buy, and where we go to paint digital pictures of us so our attention can be sold to advertisers, who are their actual customers. Loss of privacy is the price we pay.

These are the five most common ways you’re being spied on:

Alexa and Siri are always listening for that activation word

Concerned woman looking at her phone
Voice assistant apps like Siri, Alexa or Google are listening for "wake words". Credit: Kateryna Onyschchuk

Whether it’s Siri, Alexa, or Google, voice assistants are now everywhere. They’re turning on our lights, giving us directions, and reading out our text messages as we drive. There are very helpful, convenient benefits to this technology, but whenever the word “convenient” is thrown around, it usually means you’re being listened to. In the case of voice assistants, they are listening all the time, or else they wouldn’t be able to recognize when you say the “wake word” like “Hey Siri” or “Alexa.” Amazon has even admitted that their staff can—and do—listen to our private conversations for so-called research purposes. Do you really want a private company to listen to every word you say?

Facebook can access your microphone all the time

If you leave your Android device or iPhone on the default settings it came with, everything you say could be recorded and used for advertising purposes, not just by the company that made the phone but by third-party apps (that’s almost every app) that you install on your phone. While Facebook denies that they actively listen to you for advertising purposes, it’s hard to know what’s true with them, considering how often they mislead the public.

The reason it feels like they’re listening, however, is because they suck up a ton of data about us through all the other ways they can listen. They also have a very bad track record of keeping our data safe. In recent years the personal and private information of more than 500 million Facebook users has been hacked and published online.

Instagram tracks your activity even when you’re not on Instagram

If you use an iPhone, you may have noticed a new notification recently that asks if you want to stop the app you’re about to open from tracking you. This was likely how you first discovered that apps were tracking you everywhere. In fact, most apps, including Instagram, record almost everything you do on your phone.

"From Google searches to Amazon purchases, they’re listening, adding more and more data points on you to their records"

From Google searches to Amazon purchases, they’re listening, adding more and more data points on you to their records. Meta, the owner of Instagram, admitted that this tracking is worth billions of dollars to them every year. Even though Instagram is free to use, you’re inadvertently paying for it with your privacy.

Google Maps is building a big giant map of everywhere you’ve ever been

Google Maps on a phone in a car
Google Maps saves and records all the journeys you make. Credit: Vedad Ceric

How many times do you use Google Maps to figure out the best route somewhere by foot, public transportation, bike, or car? Every single journey you’ve ever done is saved and recorded by Google in what they call your location history timeline. Turned on by default, this giant data record allows Google and anyone who might gain access to your account to know exactly where you go, when and how often, making it easy to figure out where you live, work and spend time based on how often you map directions to certain places. This helps Google send you ads based on not just the places you go but when you go to them.

Make no mistake, nearly every app on your phone is likely tracking your location. Still, Google Maps is particularly powerful because it is such a complete record held by just one company. Creepy, right?

Accepting cookies allows your crumbs to be followed all across the internet

Typing on a smartphone in the dark
Cookies are used to remember and track your activity. Credit: gorodenkoff

An internet “cookie” is a little piece of information that a website, from Google to Amazon to The Guardian, stores on your phone and can later access again. When you visit most websites, information like what you clicked on, what time it is, how long you spent there and where you’re located is tracked. It is then stored in your personalised cookie file.

Some cookies (called session cookies) only exist for one visit and are deleted when you close the browser. These are pretty harmless. But there is also something called a third-party persistent cookie. More commonly called a "tracking" cookie, these can be accessed by websites that didn't even create them! So when you visit a new website somewhere else on the internet that seems totally different, the experience will be customised, even though you haven’t even been to that website before.

"In the digital world, nothing is free. If you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product"

These cookies are more like the story of Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail of little crumbs tracking everywhere you’ve been online, working to figure out where you might go next. Instead of a wicked witch, though, it’s just thousands of companies that know pretty much everything about you trying to advertise stuff to you. Every time you click “allow cookies” you’re giving hundreds of companies the ability to “listen” to your every move online.

You might be reading the above thinking, “All I wanted to do was share a holiday snap with friends, buy some books, and read the news. Why does that mean all of this snooping?” It’s because, in the digital world, nothing is actually free. If you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product. While it is up to our governments to lead on the big changes necessary to protect us, for now, you can fight back by turning off access to your microphone in settings, asking apps not to track, telling Google Maps it can’t follow you, and always rejecting cookies. Stay safe out there!

Little Black Book of Social Media book cover

The Little Black Book of Social Media is published by Byline Books at £9.99

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