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December 24, 2020

Is My Smartphone Actually Listening to Me? The Lowdown on Phone Surveillance

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We’ve all had the uncanny experience of saying something aloud, only to see ads for it pop up on our social media accounts and chase us around the web. It’s a common joke that our phones must have been listening, as a way of explaining the coincidence. But is it really a coincidence or are our phones actually listening to us? Take a look at our guide to phone surveillance:

  • Is my smartphone listening to me?
  • Is it legal?
  • Why does it listen?
  • Privacy tips

Is My Smartphone Listening to Me?

Most smartphones come packed with smart assistants. With a simple voice command, you can ask your device to answer questions, set reminders, text your contacts, and more. Most of these devices function by way of a “wake word,” which tells them to actively listen and perform whatever request you make. However, in order to catch the wake word, smartphones must constantly listen.

That being said, although your phone is always listening, there’s a difference between listening and recording. In general, your conversation with your smart device is only recorded and analyzed when you activate it with the wake word. Of course, technology never functions perfectly. Unfortunately, many smartphone assistants tend to “wake” randomly, upon hearing a similar phrase to their wake word, or as a result of a glitch. This can result in private conversations and other matters being recorded without the user’s knowledge.

Is Phone Surveillance Legal?

When it comes to built-in smart assistants, the surveillance they conduct is perfectly legal. This is because, before using these devices, you must consent to their terms and conditions. Naturally, few people take the time to actually read the terms of use. Unfortunately, ignorance of the terms doesn’t make phone surveillance illegal. 

That being said, although your device maker isn’t listening to your conversations illegally, it’s possible that some of your apps are. Users who aren’t prudent with the applications they download may accidentally select one that spies on you without your permission. Some apps also ask for access to your microphone, when they don’t need it to function. If your daily crossword puzzle app asks for access to your contacts, microphone, camera, and more, for example, treat it with great suspicion and consider looking for a different app.

Why Does My Phone Listen to Me?

The companies who make smartphones want your data. They can use it to build personalized profiles about you, your habits, and your interests. From there, your information becomes a method of targeting you for customized ads. If you ask Siri for a recipe to bake bread, you may start seeing ads for baking equipment. Most companies make money from these ads, especially when they succeed in making a sale.

Phone Surveillance Privacy Tips

Phone surveillance on smartphones is all too common, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a few steps you can take to reduce the way your phone’s smart assistant tracks you:

  • Turn Your Assistant Off: On most devices, you can stop your smart assistant from activating with a wake word, by adjusting your settings. Although this means you can no longer control your phone with voice commands, it also means your device won’t be listening to your conversations without your knowledge.
  • Review App Permissions: Smart assistants aren’t always the only ones listening. Some apps may also request permission to access your microphone when they don’t need access at all. If you see apps like this, consider deleting them or finding an alternative.
  • Update Your Software: Outdated software may have vulnerabilities hackers can exploit, including vulnerabilities in your microphone. To prevent this from becoming a risk to your privacy, keep your software always up-to-date.

For further online privacy, consider using a virtual private network. Although VPNs can’t stop your smart assistants from listening to you, they can protect you from snoops while you browse the web and may even limit some tracking from your apps. HotBot VPN is available for your Android, iOS, and Windows devices!

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