We hear it all the time: “I swear my phone is listening to me because I just saw this ad about the exact thing I was just talking about.” Online ads undeniably have a way of promoting the same products and services we talk (and think) about. So is your phone really spying on your conversations?
Your Phone Isn’t Listening to You; It’s Worse Than That
No, your phone is not recording your conversations and uploading them to some remote server to be analyzed for generating ads that are then beamed back to your phone. Yes, it’s hard to believe that’s not happening, considering how creepily relevant some ads can seem. Nonetheless, we can assure you the reason is not your phone spying on your conversations—at least not your voice conversations.
Now, technically, it’s true that virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant will record clips of audio when you use their wake words, and at least some of the time, upload those clips so specialists can refine those assistants’ responses. Sometimes background conversations end up recorded in those clips too, so, in a way, parts of your conversations could be heard by a real person somewhere. In fact, that’s the premise of the 2022 HBO Max thriller Kimi, if you want to see a movie rendition of that voice analysis happening.
But those recordings are not how those creepy ads got there. The truth about your phone’s surveillance on you is, in some ways, actually scarier.
Advertisers Don’t Need to Eavesdrop
It’s unsettlingly easy for advertisers to make accurate guesses about what you’re talking and hearing about without doing any audio recording. They can take current trends and pair them with basic information they have about you—like your demographics, location, search history, shopping habits, daily routine, and more—to judge what people like you (and the circles you run in) are interested in. Whatever you’re interested in, you will also tend to talk about.
For example, let’s say you meet up with a friend at a coffee shop. Just beforehand, your friend decided to glance at prices for panini makers on Amazon. Then, somewhere during your conversation, they casually drop the line, “Man, I’ve been really craving a good panini lately.” You ignore the comment and move on, but the next time you go online—bingo—the first ad you’ve ever seen for a panini maker.
Did your smartphone analyze your friend’s comment and decide it should try to sell you a panini maker? No, Google just grabbed a few simple data points and put two-and-two together. It was easy to see from your friend’s browsing history they had paninis on the brain, and geolocation data gathered from both your phones made it obvious you were spending time together. No audio recording was necessary to show you something relevant, just standard data tracking and a bit of logical guesswork. The fact that paninis came up in conversation was just an unsurprising coincidence.
Recording Conversations Is Completely Impractical
Promoting ads that coincide with what you’re thinking and talking about is really that simple, but it’s also just plain efficient. In fact, what ad companies do is far more efficient than snooping on your in-person conversations.
Yes, it is technically possible for software on your phone to record audio and upload it to a remote location at the same time. But all of that work would put a huge strain on your phone’s resources, draining your battery and likely driving your data usage through the roof. Some advanced kinds of spyware might behave like that, but the difficulty and costs of infecting a phone mean you’d need some seriously powerful enemies to have cause for concern.
Another problem is the simple fact that, in terms of bytes, a decent-quality voice recording is gigantic when compared to data points like your most recent search and location history, which are much more compact. Imagine the resources it would take to transfer, store, and process the audio from every smartphone mic at the same time all day long. It’s just not feasible, not even for Google.
Your Conversations Aren’t Really That Valuable
Okay, let’s say big tech companies with their vast resources were hiding a huge underground lab where everyone’s real-life conversations were being stored and analyzed for ad targeting. The problem is that the entire project would be a tremendous waste of time and energy. Why? Because, at the end of the day, for advertisers at least, your chats with friends and family aren’t even worth listening to.
Whatever you’re talking about right now, ad-serving software probably knew you and your friends were interested in a long time ago. Your hot takes and new obsessions are old news for companies like Google. That movie you saw last week and liked so much you told your coworkers about it? Google probably guessed you were going to see it before you decided to and may have known you enjoyed it by the way you interacted with your phone during and after the showing.
On top of that, people lie and mislead about their interests in conversation all the time. Who hasn’t faked interest in a friend’s boring hobby out of politeness? Any secret eavesdropping lab would quickly have to shut its doors thanks to that low-quality, inaccurate data. But you know what doesn’t lie? Your browsing history.
How to Stop Those Creepy Ads
So if muffling your phone’s microphone closed won’t actually get you any real privacy, what can you do to stop those suspiciously relevant ads from appearing? Unfortunately, not much.
Privacy on the internet is a myth. Your smartphone is a little sponge soaking up every bit of valuable data it can, and anyone asking for that data generally can have it. You can minimize the amount of data being collected and shared with changes like tweaking your Google account’s privacy settings or switching to privacy-centered alternatives to popular services like DuckDuckGo for search and Signal for messaging. Using a VPN in combination with private browsing mode can also make your browsing activity harder for advertisers to track.
There’s no bulletproof solution, though. Your behavior itself can be fingerprinted, cataloged, and tracked across browsing sessions, weakening many privacy tools. You can try getting a reasonable amount of anonymity by browsing with Tor, but that comes with its own drawbacks and pitfalls. Even disabling GPS tracking doesn’t help like you’d think because other data points like nearby Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals make geolocation tracking difficult to stop.
So instead of worrying about voice recordings, you should really just remember one thing: don’t do anything on your phone or take your phone anywhere you aren’t comfortable with advertisers (and other authorities) knowing about.
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