Is Technology Listening to Your Conversations?
Everyone has a story that goes something like this:
- “My friend text messaged me announcing that her boyfriend popped the question (congratulations!), and suddenly, I’m getting ads on Facebook for engagement rings.”
- “I’m at a business lunch and one of my coworkers shared a story about his family vacation. Next thing we know, one of us had online ads popping up for his family’s destination.”
- “I’ve been searching around for a place to eat, and now I’m getting ads for food delivery services.”
It makes us wonder, are our devices listening to us when we don’t want them to? Do Google, Facebook, and other platforms use technology to listen to our conversations so they can target us with relevant advertisements?
Or is it just a coincidence?
Are Our Phones Listening To Us?
Officially, no: Your devices aren’t listening to your conversations. Google and Facebook have officially stated that listening in on your conversations through your phone or computer would be immoral and illegal. Read Facebook’s official statement from 2016 about accessing your microphone to listen to your conversations. Read Google’s blog post about safeguarding speech, which includes links for how to manage and control your settings if and when you use Google products.
Sites like Facebook and Google make money by building a profile of you based on your browsing history and internet activity. These services will then target you with advertisements for specific products that match the profile they’ve built. Ergo, Targeted Advertising.
In other words, if a service is free for you to use, it’s likely that you’re the product.
So how do Google and Facebook build these profiles? Well, your devices may not be listening to what you say, but they’re keeping track of everything you do online.
Pictures, status updates, relationship status, and anything else about you that may be relevant on your social media, for example, can be used in your profile. If you’re using a “rewards” credit card, the company could be tracking your purchase history with that card. Every time that you Google something, that query topic will be added to your advertiser profile.
Because of how thorough large tech companies are, it’s easy to make a leap and assume that they’re listening at every waking moment. And sometimes, they are.
The Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, for example, listen for specific audio queues in order to engage with you. When you use these programs, you are accepting terms and conditions that will allow them to listen in for their specific audio queue. That said, we couldn’t find official confirmation that any of these services are purposefully and maliciously listening in on your conversations.
Privacy Risks With Connected Devices (Microphones and Cameras)
While it’s a little cloudy when it comes to answering whether or not tech companies are listening in, scammers and hackers will absolutely try to take advantage of the wealth of information that our devices provide.
Using a smartphone or computer means that your location data and online purchase history are constantly being recorded (unless you adjust your settings). Access to this information can be used to compromise things like your bank accounts if they collect enough personal data on you.
If you haven’t read the fine print for apps you install, you may not know that some apps are recording and storing your phone activity. While this data is often used for targeted advertisements, it’s your responsibility to be smart about what apps you install on your device, as your privacy could be violated very easily.
If you use a USB-connected camera for meetings or remote family get-togethers, for example, scammers may try to access it and record a video and then blackmail you with it. Microphones can also be a potential security risk, as programs may try to record you saying your password or other personal information.
How To Protect Your Privacy
So … what can you do? How can you make sure your devices are listening when you want them to (voice-activated commands, Alexa, and Google Assistant for a few examples)? And how can you make sure they’re not listening when you want privacy?
Disabling your webcam, built-in video camera, and microphone is easy on the computer. Simply unplug these devices when they’re not in use. If you’re on a laptop, tape a small piece of paper over your webcam as a “shutter” for when you’re not using it. You’ll have a harder time doing this on your phone, however, as you often need your microphone readily available for calls. If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out how to plug your peripherals back in, OneLaunch comes with built-in privacy controls so you can enable and disable your camera and microphone as needed when you’re using OneLaunch.
Always verify the permissions of an app that you download. A calculator app, for example, doesn’t need to know your location! Only download apps from the official site store. Third-party apps are vulnerable to malware and other harmful programs. This applies to suspicious links you may receive from emails or text messages.
OneLaunch comes with a built-in incognito browsing mode that won’t store and track your search history as you use it.
Consider what you make publicly available on social media. Names of first pets, previous addresses, and other personal info that you may share, which is commonly used in the “forgot my password” questions for bank accounts, can be gathered by experienced and resourceful thieves.
At the end of the day, you should be cautious with the activity you’re sharing both online and in real life. These tips can be compared to locking the front door or shredding important documents when you don’t need them anymore. They’re precautions that you can take to ensure that you’re always safe and secure.
Resources For Protecting Privacy
Here, we’ve assembled a list of online resources you can use to “turn off” your devices so they aren’t recording your activities online, and gathering that information for advertising purposes. Before you turn it all off, however, ask yourself this question: If you have to see online advertisements, would you prefer to see random ones that may or may not be relevant, or would you rather see ones that are relevant to you, your interests, your lifestyle and your needs?
- Auto delete your location history and activity data from Google
- Turn off location tracking on Apple devices (at the device level or application level)
- Control your Amazon smart device (Alexa, Echo, etc.)
- Change your Google Nest privacy settings
- Adjust your Facebook privacy settings (including ad preferences)
- Adjust your Instagram privacy settings