Perhaps it’s happened to you at one point: seeing an eerily specific ad about a product you could have sworn you were just talking about with a friend a couple of minutes ago. 

Occasionally, your smartphone wasn’t even in the same room as you when the conversation happened, but you end up seeing that ad anyway. It gets so obvious sometimes that you start to wonder if maybe your phone is actually listening to you or reading your mind. What kind of sorcery is this?

Today, we’ll uncover the truth and break down the myths surrounding this issue:

Can your mobile phone really hear your real-life conversations?

To give you a clearer picture, let’s take a step back and talk about how online ads are targeted.

Normally, brands get permission from third-party sites like your social networking channels and websites you visit to view your activity on the internet. The data they get ranges anywhere from the cookies you accept to your demographic information (age and location), and more. 

That way, they can more accurately target audiences with specific traits, interests, and preferences that they’re looking for, and have higher chances of capturing a lead or converting a sale. There’s been no secret about how ad networks and digital marketing companies use data to serve ads to the best audience, but what if we told you there was more to the picture?

Mobile Ads: Can Your Phone Hear Your Conversations

How Advertisers Can “Hear” You

Big data, artificial intelligence, and algorithms all work together to target ads efficiently. The more data gathered about your audience, the more precise these campaigns will turn out to be.

Artificial intelligence fuels most (if not all) online marketing tools to automate processes and reduce errors. Each social media channel or ad network has specific algorithms that identify the best size, time, and type of ad to show to a user for maximum effect.

What Major Advertisers and Tech Giants Have to Say

Over the past couple of years, this issue has gained enough traction to compel major tech companies to release statements to the public. The likes of Google and Facebook have both stressed that they do not use smartphones to record conversations or sounds around a users’ environment, despite how eerily accurate their ads get.

In a statement, Facebook said that they show ads based on interests and information you place on your public profile, but not what you’re talking about. Google has also followed suit, saying that they do not use ambient noises to serve targeted ads.

Only Apple has somehow admitted to this phenomenon, but only when you are using Siri. They also claim that it is used for optimization. However, there is no stopping their servers from recording conversations you have when the voice assistant is triggered. 

How Exactly Does Your Phone Listen?

Can your phone hear you? Yes and no. There are two ways they make use of audio capturing functions of your mobile phone.

Smartphones do pick up audio in your environment, but it’s not the same as actively listening to your conversations unless you activate a voice assistant. Unless you start your sentences with “Hey, Siri,” “OK, Google,” or “Alexa,” there is no need to worry that your phone could be spying on specific conversations.

Instead, advertisers are after TV commercials, movies, and other media that can clue them in on your interests. That, coupled with the information you voluntarily place on your social media accounts, the cookies you accept on websites you visit, and the permission to grant brands, all work together to provide companies with a holistic view of who you are.

Not to say your phone isn’t actively listening to you right now, because it does have that capacity. But at this stage, companies are saying that they don’t use it the wrong way.

How to Stop Brands from Spying on You

Now you know that your phone can pick up sounds, but it’s probably not as malicious as you think. It usually responds to keywords thrown around by yourself or people around you to trigger when it should listen. This could mean activating a voice assistant or granting microphone access. It does not, however, conspiratorially record or listen to all of your conversations and store them in some cloud.

That said, if the idea of your phone actively listening in bothers you, there are ways to ensure that no apps get access to your phone’s listening device: 

  • iPhone

To stop apps from using your microphone:

  • Go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone
  • Check which apps have microphone access and remove them as you wish.

To turn off Siri (for iOS 11 and 12):

  • Got to Settings > Siri & Search
  • Deselect Listen for “Hey Siri,” Press Home for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked
  • A prompt should appear asking if you want to turn off Siri; press Turn Off Siri.

If you’re using iOS 10:

  • Got to Settings > General > Siri
  • Select Turn Off Siri

To turn off dictation:

  • Go to Settings > General > Keyboard
  • Deselect Enable Dictation
  • Google Pixel

To stop apps from using your microphone:

  • Go to Settings > Privacy > Permissions Manager > Microphone
  • Select any app under the ALLOWED column that you want to remove microphone access for.

To stop Google Assistant:

  • Go to Settings > Apps & Notifications > Assistant
  • Deselect Google Assistant
  • Android

To stop OK Google on Android:

  • Go to Settings > Google
  • Scroll to Services and select Search

That said, these settings are not enough to completely mask your digital footprint. For instance, you should be careful of signing up on any website using your existing social media accounts (such as Facebook), since a typical tradeoff is access to view your public profile info.

It’s Not Just What They Hear

Even if you think you don’t have anything to hide, it’s still important to be mindful of your privacy and data. 

While your mobile phones are not actively listening to your conversations, you do leave substantial trails of your identity online, which can explain why those ads are just so spot on. Technology will only get more intelligent, so it’s always a good idea to exercise caution. But in reality, there isn’t much to be afraid of.

Unless you’re dealing with highly sensitive, FBI-level information on a daily basis, the only people who get access to your data are advertisers who use automated tools to run their campaigns more efficiently. It’s just one of the ways for them to know their audience better–and as people have noticed, it works!

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