It should come as no surprise that your electronic devices are keeping an eye on you. You already know that if you search for, say, the latest Taylor Swift CD using your smartphone’s browser, there’s a good chance you’ll see it later when you open up Facebook or Pinterest. Yes, your phone is keeping tabs on the websites you visit and what you type into your favorite search engine.
Did you know, however, that it’s very likely your phone is listening in on what you think are private conversations and activities of daily life? It’s not just phone calls; your phone may have apps that keep an electronic ear out for certain things going on in your home, your workplace and even your bedroom.
There are reasons why your phone might need to be alert to various sounds. For example, if you have an iPhone, you might have the “Hey Siri” function enabled. If you leave the phone lying around, you can just call out “Hey, Siri!” and your virtual assistant will be ready to tell you the weather, text your mom or teach you how to spell a word that’s stumping you. Another app, called HappyWakeUp, listens for signs you’re beginning to exit the deepest level of sleep so it can time your alarm with a rise in your alertness. This leads to happier mornings with less yawning and a lower chance you’ll whack the phone to put it into snooze mode.
Other reasons your phone is listening to you might make you less than thrilled about the whole premise, for example, if an app can tell whether you’re a male or a female, whether you tend to talk to males or females, when you go to bed and a variety of other seemingly trivial bits of information. With this information, companies can market their products to you without you knowing they’ve gleaned this data.
You might have had experiences where you have said something and, seemingly out of the blue, your phone’s search engine or one of your apps pulls up information about that very thing, for example, when you discuss upcoming vacation plans. Say you’re planning a trip to Denver in March to ski. Within a few days, you might see advertisements on your phone pointing you to great airfare prices to Denver. Coincidence?
While your phone might be listening to you, it also might be the Baader-Meinhof principle at work. Humans are designed to look for patterns and explanations and to take them at more than face value. If you notice this happening to you, keep in mind it might be nothing more than a simple coincidence.
Protecting Your Privacy
If protecting your privacy, and that of the people around you, is important to you, it makes sense to take some steps to disable apps that are listening to you without your permission. The easiest way is to simply disable the microphone on your phone. Go into your settings, and look for apps with microphone access. Turn off those you don’t want eavesdropping. If you’re going to be having a sensitive conversation, you can turn off the microphone access to all apps, then turn it back on later.
You can also be mindful of turning off your phone or leaving the room when you’re doing something you don’t want anyone, including your phone, overhear. This is a good way to prevent accidentally enabling the voice-to-text feature, texting the wrong person gossip you’d rather not pass on.
Keeping your privacy intact can take some extra steps in today’s ultra-connected world, but it’s worth it in some situations.