You have probably experienced a scenario where you would swear that your phone was listening to you because you’d be talking about something and an ad shows up around what you were talking about.
To give you an example, you could be talking about going on holiday to Mombasa and boom, Facebook or Instagram starts showing you ads about hotels in Mombasa, even creepier, you start seeing similar ads on websites you visit.
First, I’d like to tell you that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone.
There are millions of other people in the world that have experienced the same thing and the general conclusion is that our phones must be listening to us.
But are they?
You may have heard of this theory before or it’s absolutely new to you, but the bottom line is, yes, our phones are sort-of, kinda, listening to us but not in the way we think.
The theory is that smartphones use the microphone to listen in to our conversations and pick certain keywords, keywords that will be used by tech giants such as Facebook and Google to serve us relevant ads that we are likely to click on – which results in them getting money.
It all sounds true and probable until I tell you that it’s actually not.
Researchers have not yet found any evidence of big tech companies listening in to conversations through your phone’s mic.
For instance, Wandera – a Cybersecurity firm based in the U.S., carried out a test with four smartphones, two identical iPhones and two identical Samsung devices.
They put two devices, of each type, on mute and the other two were subjected to a constant keyword for multiple days consecutively.
Wandera then examined the data coming from these devices and they could not find any evidence of audio data being sent back to big tech corporates. Their conclusion? Big tech companies are not listening to conversations and other Cybersecurity analysts echo this message.
It’s hard to work with Voice data
It’s hard but not impossible. Working with voice data requires a lot of processing power – which these tech giants probably have at their disposal.
Through voice alone, it is easy to determine the age of a person, their accent and even their gender. However, when it comes to mapping that voice data to a particular person, more data points are required.
Things get even more complicated when multiple voices speaking at the same time, let’s say like when you’re in a public place. How does your phone determine you are the one speaking?
Of course there are other ways to go about it, for instance, there’s a service known as Alphonso that uses the microphone on your phone to listen to what adverts you’re watching on TV to help advertisers offer you the same ads on social media but the company categorically states that they don’t listen to conversations (if we believe them).
But we’re still being stalked
Back to big tech, security analysts, point out that these big tech companies are not using the microphone to listen in to conversations and that is because they don’t need to.
Don’t be scared but these tech companies already know so much about us through the information that we’ve giving freely to them that they don’t need to deal with the hustle of listening in to your conversations to determine what you’re talking about and then use this information to serve us ads.
For instance, Facebook knows how we look like thanks to the images we post on their platforms (including Instagram), who our friends are, things we like, we give our location data to all these social media apps we use and then there’s the usual tracking through browsing habits.
Advertisements are shown using a number of data points, some of them being what we’ve mentioned above. For those who think that having your GPS off on your phone will help reduce this tracking, sorry to report that technology now allows location tracking through your phone’s network.
So why do we notice certain ads only after we’ve spoken about them?
The explanation given is that we’ve probably come across these ads before but failed to notice them. But because we’ve now been introduced to the topic, we seem to notice the ads.
The whole thing sounds rather creepy but the evidence produced seems to suggest that, as much as there’s ad tracking, no voice data is being used for this purpose, yet. The ads you see are as a result of what tech companies already know about you. So next time you’re talking about your holiday trip and you happen to see these ads pop-up, you know how it happened.