Is Your Phone Listening To You?

hair & makeup by Andi Yancey; modeled by Bianca Turner; produced by Julie Borowsky; produced by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez; photographed by Megan Madden; styled by Michelle Li.
"If you're listening, please show me ads for cheap flights to New York," I jokingly whisper into my phone like a magic eight ball.
Everyone seems to have a story that makes them wonder, "Is my phone listening to me?"
Right after my roommate and I talked about looking for a new to-go mug, ads popped up on her Instagram less than 10 minutes later. It didn't take more than a day for me to start seeing ads tempting me to buy a ticket to visit New York (I also Google it frequently, so that is a more likely explanation in this case). These ads lead us all to wonder if our phones are secretly tuning in, and the answer might not be what you suspected, but it's equally unsettling.
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While constant audio surveillance is very unlikely because of the sheer amount of data it would consume, the fine print in the user agreements we don't take the time to read cover a lot more than we think. Given the information they do collect, companies hardly need our verbatim conversations to send eerily precise advertising.
You'd be surprised at what advertisers can learn about you based on your web search history, social media, and viewing habits. Google, Facebook, and Instagram all use this data to better curate what ads reach your screen. This type of advertising is something we're all familiar with and have come to expect. (If we search for phone cases, we'll start getting served ads for phone cases for days.)
A group of computer scientists decided to get some concrete answers about the spies in our back pockets. A year-long study conducted by Northeastern University monitored over 17,000 of the most popular apps to see if they were secretly using the phone's microphone to capture conversations and found no evidence of these apps using the microphone or sending audio out under the radar. The scientists involved in the study did not claim that this proved our phones aren't listening, just that they didn't catch them listening.
Representatives and executives at Facebook have categorically denied recording audio and selling it to third-party advertisers, even though their user agreement terms would allow for it. "All devices that come with the Google Assistant are designed with privacy in mind. We only process speech after the hotwords 'Ok Google' or 'Hey Google' is detected. If the hotword is not heard, or the Assistant does not hear a command, the audio snippet stays local on the device and is discarded," a Google spokesperson told Refinery29.
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This doesn't totally rule out that our phones are listening. It feels like there are too many instances for it to be a coincidence. The technology exists, but it requires a trigger. This trigger could be anything from "Okay Google" to "Hey Siri" or "Alexa" to subtler words or phrases like saying "vacation" or "shopping." In fact, many Google and Facebook-affiliated apps use a software from a company called Alphonso, a start-up that collects TV-viewing data to sell to advertisers. The software uses a smartphone's microphone and picks up on identifying audio in ads and shows to determine what might be most enticing to the viewer.
But have we been focused on the wrong type of surveillance? Our phones might not be listening in the way we thought, but the study made an equally disturbing discovery – that your phone might be watching what you're doing. In the study, apps were found to be recording people's screen activity and sending that information to third-party companies.
Our phones might not be jotting down our every word, but our suspicions that our phones are more observant than they're letting on was definitely correct.
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