Imagine scrolling through your Facebook when you see a weird ad. It’s for something you know you’ve never been interested in. You shrug it off as poor ad targeting until you start seeing it again and again. Then it clicks — hey, isn’t this something your friend mentioned recently when talking to you? It seems like the only way your phone could’ve thought you’re interested in this topic is if it was listening to all of your conversations.
Setting a trap for your phone
First, I’d like to tell you the story of our experience with this test. My co-workers and I picked a couple of topics we were sure that none of us had discussed recently and had never searched for on Google:
- Laura chose traveling to Alaska;
- I chose buying a new Volvo;
- Peter chose getting a pet lizard.
We put our phones on the table and talked about every topic for a couple of minutes three days straight. Starting from Alaska’s wilderness, sled dogs, and upcoming holidays, followed by different Volvo models, and finishing with geckos and chameleons.
We all agreed to closely monitor the ads we’d get on our phones to see if any of them relate to the chosen topics.
How to test your phone
- Select a good topic. It should be something quite far from your comfort zone that couldn’t be associated with your personality.
- Isolate the topic from your phone. It is critically important that you don’t select this topic within earshot of your phone or any other devices. Do not use your phone to search for info on this topic. The best way to do it is to think of it in your head. If you can’t do that, turn off your phone completely or hide it in a soundproof space before discussing your idea with anyone. Make sure you have never Googled this topic;
- Select keywords. Think of a list of keywords that could trigger search engines. Let’s take Alaska as an example. Some keywords might include “holidays in Alaska”, “Alaska tours”, “flights to Alaska”, “hotels in Alaska”, or “what to do in Alaska”;
- Discuss the topic out loud next to your phone. You can do this alone or with someone else for several minutes at a time. Do this a few days in a row. Make sure you don’t search for the topic in any way — your phone’s only contact with it should be hearing you talk about it.
What we discovered
The test results were mixed.
None of us bumped into reptile ads. Peter owns a dog, and he’s constantly bombarded with advertisements of local pet shops, veterinarians, and dog trainers. He never receives ads about cats, parrots, or other pets, which implies that his phone knows exactly what Peter needs.
Alaska also didn’t appear in our feeds. Laura and I got a few ads offering flight tickets, but the holiday season was approaching and we were both avid travelers. It’s hard to say whether these ads were linked to our office discussion.
But just when I thought that these rumors about our phones listening to us is a hoax, I started seeing Volvo ads. I have no interest in owning a car and have never searched for cars online. Peter and Laura didn’t see any ads related to any car manufacturers.
What does this prove?
Imagine how much information search engines know about us: our age, location, sex, hobbies, work history, and favorite restaurants. Based on the things we reveal about ourselves online and our search history, marketers can paint a detailed picture of our personalities.
I’m in my thirties, I live in a city, and I work at a cybersecurity company. I often read about the latest tech, and I occasionally watch Formula One. Would this be enough to trigger Volvo ads? It’s possible, but not probable. I can’t tell for sure if my phone was listening to me, analyzing me for speech, and targeting me for ads, or if it was just a mere coincidence.
The test results may also depend on the device you’re using and your settings. Since our blog’s readers are likely to be more concerned about their privacy than the average internet user, your results may vary. Results may also vary from person to person, as ad targeting may use a host of different data points about people, but in some cases, the matches are quite uncanny.
The secrets of virtual assistants
When you trigger a special command on your smartphone, it recognizes your voice and prepares to execute your orders. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple and other tech companies then analyze some of the data you provide to your virtual assistant to improve their services. Some critics say they do this even if the user has restricted their permissions.
Tech giants have denied multiple times any accusations that they may be listening to you even then your virtual assistant is in sleep mode. However, this is not exactly true. A report has revealed that Apple’s Siri can be mistakenly activated and then record private matters. With the right settings enabled, they will also reserve the right to use this data to serve you ads.
Can you trust Google?
In 2019, Google admitted that 1,000 recordings of customer conversations were leaked from a third-party contractor to a Belgian news outlet. Some recordings contained private information, such as home addresses, medical conditions, and even business calls.
Some recordings contained enough data to identify some of the people speaking. The company’s spokesperson claimed the leak happened because one of their contractors violated their security and privacy policies.
If Google can’t trust their own contractors, how can we trust them with our data?
How to protect your privacy
- Review your app permissions. Some apps might want to access your microphone without any reason. This might allow bad actors to spy on you in the background, or collect ad targeting data on you when you don’t want them listening. Go though your smartphone’s settings and make sure that apps can access only resources needed to do their job.
- Delete your activities. Apple, Google, and other service providers allow you to delete your dictation history. You can also turn off audio recordings and thus avoid ending up in the middle of the leak some day.
- Don’t share too much with your virtual assistant. We recommend carefully choosing the information you dictate to your phone. The less it knows, the better.
- Use a VPN. Installing a VPN on your smartphone and enhancing your privacy is also not a bad idea. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and hides your IP address, therefore if somebody has intercepted your data, they wouldn’t be able to view it and reveal your location.
With NordVPN, you can protect up to six different devices. Since not only smartphones, but also laptops, tablets, and even smart speakers are vulnerable to snoopers, a VPN could help you keep prying eyes away.