Are Our Devices Listening To Everything We Say?

Have you ever been talking about something with a friend, maybe about a new phone or car, and then all of a sudden... it's being advertised to you online?

'How weird is that?' you think as you scroll past the adverts.

You wouldn't be alone, though. Everyone seems to have some kind of story relating to this; maybe we're being over-paranoid, afraid that there's no such thing as privacy anymore.

But is it really a coincidence, or are our devices listening to every word we say? Do we need to start wearing tinfoil hats?

Let's take a deeper look, and discuss some theories.

The Undeniable Proof

In technical terms, it is possible for your phone to record everything you're saying. How many apps request permission to access our photos and microphone, and how many do we actually say no to?

When doing some research for this blog, I noticed some very concerning headlines: "Apple and Google Stop Workers From Listening To Intimate Recordings of Customers"

Well, that's promising.

In August 2019, Google and Apple suspended their employee's access to recordings made by their virtual assistants, Google Assistant and Siri respectively.

Why? Because workers were listening to people's private conversations, which included drug deals, and people getting frisky in the bedroom. All those intimate, private moments - not so private.

The workers in question were sent home, but it remains unclear what happened next.

Maybe next time you and your lover lock eyes, keep the phones out of the bedroom - unless you're into that sort of thing.

The more concerning part is that the devices are only meant to record audio when prompted. So, why have they been able to record people having sex?

Surely people aren't shouting "Hey Siri!", "Ok Google!", or "Alexa!" - Well maybe the last one. Be careful who you go out with...

Whilst these two major tech players were caught, Amazon openly admitted earlier on in the year that they listen to a sample of Amazon Echo recordings, with the purpose of doing so to improve their voice-assistant.

The things we will give up for a better customer service! We're a big fan of improving your customer service - but there are better ways to do it.

Well, I guess that settles that. Our devices are listening to us - well, the likes of Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri are at least.

ok google

They're Watching Us!

Your device could not only be listening, but actually record your screen activity.

At Northeastern University, they'd just about had enough of these rumours and conspiracies flying around, so they carried out a full-blown investigation.

They downloaded 17,000 of the most popular apps onto several phones. None of the apps activated the microphone, but rather, took screenshots of themselves, which were then sent to third parties.

Out of the 17,000 applications downloaded and tested, over 9,000 did this, and the majority didn't make it clear in the terms and conditions that it would happen.

It may be the case that some companies use this data to help improve the customer experience, but there's nothing to say a third party couldn't be sold the information.

Is this worse than recording your voice? I guess it depends what is on your screen, and what it's used for.

Another concerning factor is what happens when the apps are running in the background - can they still take screenshots of your device?

To See or Not To See: We Put The Theory To The Test

One of our male colleagues, who does not shop for female clothing (so he tells us), said the words "women's lingerie" into his phone when it was locked.

Here's where it gets interesting - when he was scrolling through a webpage on his computer later the same day, an advert for Victoria's Secret came up.

The computer doesn't have a microphone connected, so how could this happen?

Here are our theories:

> Another phone which is connected to the same Wi-Fi picked it up.
> He actually buys women's lingerie (for himself, or others).
> It's just a total coincidence.

Whilst the second and third theory aren't too far-fetched, the first one can't be right.

If the phone on the Wi-Fi picked it up, why haven't the rest of us seen it? Can this sort of information be passed across, and transferred to different users on the same internet connection?

Maybe he just wanted an excuse to look at women's underwear at work...

Something else similar happened to me recently.

Further down in this blog you will see me mention researching a trip to Amsterdam from home (spoiler alert!).

Afterwards, at work I mentioned the trip to a colleague. Low and behold, no more than an hour later, I received an advert on my works PC for... yes, you guessed it, flights and hotels for Amsterdam.

I definitely had not typed the word on my works PC or searched, anything to do with the Dutch city - (I've only searched it at home).

Something is definitely taking notes!

Funnily enough, half of my adverts now seem to be regarding holidays.

Why Our Devices Aren't Listening To Us

Digital Footprint

When you consider the amount of content we consume every day, whether it be through Facebook, YoutTube, Google, our emails etc, it's a lot.

The amount you actually view is probably a lot more than you realise. With every link, post, webpage, email, and video that you view, a cookie will be placed on you.

Why would companies spend thousands on the technology to listen on you, when you have a whole jar of cookies that are giving your interests away?

You want a holiday. You've had a little browse here and there before, but you've saved enough money and it's time to book! All of a sudden, those holiday adverts at the side of your page will begin to attract your attention.

When TUI (other choices are available) email you about a bargain holiday, of course you're going to click on it! Now they know you've been tempted, so will begin to retarget you with adverts in the hope of luring you in.

The same happened to me recently when planning a trip to Amsterdam. I'd booked the hotel and flights, and wanted to look forward to some excursions whilst there. So, I went on TripAdvisor, booked one, and the next thing I knew I was getting adverts left, right and center for canal rides, museum tours etc.

No-one was spying on me. TripAdvisor placed a cookie on me, knew that I was going to Amsterdam, so they retargeted me with similar excursions that I might enjoy.

If you want to stop these companies retargetting you, just delete your cookies!

clear your cookies

Constantly Transcribing Isn't Feasible

As mentioned, all the cookies tracking us means there is no need for our devices to listen to us.

Just imagine all the transcribing that would be required, and the space needed to store it in. We haven't even touched upon how unreliable audio to text normally is, and with all the different accents, combined with speed of speech, it becomes an almost impossible task.

If your device was constantly listening to you, and translating, it would take up a lot of processing power - and it would show.

Many tests have been done by examining the battery usage from apps that have permission to access the microphone. The results? All the same.

When not being used, or running in the background, processing power was always kept to a minimum, meaning it would be very unlikely for your microphone to be in use.

Based Off Similar Interests

If you buy football boots, then it's likely you'd be interested in football shirts too.

If you watched Shaun of the Dead, then it's likely you'll enjoy other Simon Pegg and Nick Frost films, such as Hot Fuzz.

What am I getting at here? It's pretty easy to guess what else you're interested in, based on what you have already consumed.

As we already discussed, you have multiple cookies on you, which allow marketeers to know what you're interested in. Because our data is being shared around like a pass-the-parcel at a children's birthday party, your interests are no secret.

If you really want to see how data is harvested, tracked, and targeted, I would recommend watching "The Great Hack" on Netflix. However, if you don't want to become more paranoid, maybe give it a miss!

Red Car Syndrome

Have you ever bought something, and then started to see the same product everywhere?

A few months ago, I bought some AirPods. Before I bought them, I could have sworn the majority of people were still living in the 1990s with their wired headphones.

Apparently not.

After buying them, I noticed everyone seemed to have them at the gym. Was I a trendsetter, or had I just been living in the past?

This is what's called the Red Car Syndrome, or if you're a little fancier, the "Baader-Meinhof Effect". You don't see the thing in question, and then as soon as you do (or buy it in this case) you see it everywhere. Frequency illusion.

Well, it could be happening with the adverts you see. It could just be a coincidence that after talking about wanting a holiday that you begin to see them advertised everywhere.

Chances are they've been there all along, but since you had no interest in them they just got zoned out.

Red Car with the Baader-Meinhof Effect

The Final Verdict

Want to find out if your device is really listening to you? Tell a funny joke - if it laughs, it's listening. If not, you might not be as funny as you think you are.

All evidence is pointing towards your device not listening to you, when you don't want it to, but I can't 100% guarantee it!.

Of course, the likes of Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri are listening, but hopefully only when you prompt them.

It appears that at one point, some nosey people were spying in on conversations picked up on these devices, but we can only take their word that it has stopped.

Before you set up your next Smart Device, check the terms and conditions as well as the privacy notices in the small print. You never know what you might find.

The unfortunate reality is that we've probably already signed away our rights when agree to terms and conditions. How many of us can honestly say they've read all the conditions before agreeing? Very few, I'm sure.

In reality, anything could have been in the terms of those face-swapping apps we've downloaded... even if you've deleted the app, it's probably too late!