Is your phone listening to you for advertising?

One minute you’re talking about a new pair of trainers you want, the next you’ve...

One minute you’re talking about a new pair of trainers you want, the next you’ve got an email about a trainer sale. Coincidence?

The next day, you need some new batteries for your television remote. An hour later, you’re browsing Facebook and you see an ad for batteries. Coincidence? Maybe.

Then something strange happens. You’re with friends discussing past holidays together.The next day, you all get an email or see an ad from a holiday provider. How is this happening?

Your phone is listening to you

If you have a smartphone with Google Assistant, Siri or Alexa and these features are enabled, your phone is listening, always. But it’s only listening out for a trigger to activate when you say, “hey Siri” or “OK, Google”.

When activated, your phone records what you say, processes it, and delivers the content you requested. That’s normal and expected.

What isn’t expected is the fact that third party apps can listen in on what you’re saying to your phone too. Some people believe these apps can listen in using your phone’s microphone even without being triggered. This ‘snooping’ raises serious privacy, regulatory and legal concerns for obvious reasons. But is it true?

Dr. Peter Henway of cybersecurity firm Asterix believes so, citing ‘triggers’ as the means apps use to snoop. “From time to time, snippets of audio go back to servers but there’s no official understanding of what the triggers for that are.” He says, “Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, apps are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”

And there’s nothing illegal about it

Worst still, there’s nothing illegal about it. There are no law stopping companies from listening in on what you say, meaning they have free rein to snoop in on your conversations to deliver more relevant ads.

Google told the BBC  it “categorically” does not use what it calls “utterances” – the background sounds before a person says, “OK Google” to activate the voice recognition – for advertising or any other purpose. It also said it does not share audio acquired in that way with third parties.

Facebook insists it does not eavesdrop on user conversations in order to target them for ads or content, according to an online statement posted in 2016.

The only protection we as consumers have against this is the Data Protection Act 2018 (the successor to the 1998 Data Protection Act). It says a person has to actively consent to their data being collected for the purpose for which it’s used. Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of hastily clicking ‘accept’ when we download a third-party app without reading the small print. In doing so we consent to our personal data being used in any way the app puts forward.