Is Your Smartphone Listening to You?


It started with oats.

New year and a new us, the Revive team decided to take on a group diet with one of the stipulations being oats for breakfast. It was harmless, a little office ‘banter’ if you will. Until I was sitting at home on my personal smartphone, on my personal Instagram account having Quaker Oats aggressively advertised to me.

How did it know?

I know about cookies, I know about cache, and I know about remarketing; but this was a new level. I was adamant I hadn’t researched Oats, and even if I had, it would’ve been on my office computer. Every time I recounted the tale to friends or family, everyone had a similar story – and it was always based around advertising.

And it made me question:

Are advertisers listening to me via my smartphone?

According to an article by the BBC, all major tech firms have resolutely rejected the idea. Google reportedly said it “categorically” does not use what it calls “utterances” for advertising, or any other purpose for that matter. (Utterances are the background sounds made by a person before saying “Okay Google”, at which point voice recognition is activated.)

A spokesperson for Google clarified that the company doesn’t share audio content acquired via “listening” with third parties. Nor do their listening capabilities extend further than activating its voice services.

It is also stated in the Google content policy for apps developers that apps are forbidden from collecting data without the user’s knowledge. Apps which are found breaking this rule are removed from the Google Play store.

However, I disagree. These smartphones are constantly listening, albeit for a specific phrase such as “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri”. Our smartphones must be constantly active to note when these key phrases are spoken, and processing “utterances” to be able to distinguish when it isn’t the activation phrase.

In the same article, Facebook told the BBC that it doesn’t allow brands to target advertising based on data collected by microphones, and claimed they don’t share data with third parties without user consent.

Facebook adverts, we know, are targeted using information shared by members on the network and their net surfing habits elsewhere (cookies and cache etc.).

Other big tech companies have also denied listening via smartphones.

However, as much as we don’t like to admit it, our smartphones are tracking devices. They travel with us and sleep next to us, they listen for key phrases, know our exact location at all times, track how many steps we take and how well we’ve slept. Newer smartphones can even learn our routine; what time we get up, leave work and trains we often get. And this is all without being asked.

If you use Google services and are logged into your Google account, follow this link. It’ll show your activity across all of its services, from Chrome and Search to Android and YouTube. You can filter by date and product, and then select “Voice & Audio”. If you’ve ever used voice search on Google, you’ll receive a list of audio recordings, and be able to play and listen to them instantly. Scary huh?

Wait, it gets worse.

Last year the CDT (Centre for Democracy & Technology) in America alerted us to a technology called SilverPush. SilverPush uses audio, that’s imperceptible to us, to track our activities across devices.

For example, SilverPush could emit a tone, that you can’t hear, from your TV during an advert break that your smartphone will recognise. This links the TV and phone to the same person, and alerts your smartphone to the kind of programme you like to watch… the kind of information that is vital for targeted advertising.

So, is your smartphone listening to you? Yes, no, kind of. In the literal sense, yes, in answer to the question? Possibly. We’ve seen the evidence, and we know the technology exists, but whether it’s all above-board is yet to be confirmed. Let’s just say we won’t be surprised when a news story breaks about it.

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