Is my smartphone recording my private conversations?

Published Aug 12, 2020 by Xiph

The answer is almost certainly yes, but you can do something about it. 

In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation saw Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) utilise towers of oversized electronics to listen in on and record people’s private moments. Today, we willingly slip equally powerful surveillance technology into our pockets – in the form of mobile phones. And whether we like it or not, that technology is constantly ingesting and harvesting everything we say while in its vicinity.

Is my smartphone recording my private conversations?

Chances are that you’ve noticed a curious phenomenon while browsing the internet on your mobile device. While your smartphone is locked and tucked away, you engage in conversation about a particular topic - say, how to remove a red wine stain from a light-coloured shirt. Then, the next time you check your email, the first thing you see is a pair of advertisements: one for a new, revolutionary stain remover and one for a discount red wine wholesaler. 

You’ve never entered either of these search terms, nor have you ever typed a reference to them in a social media post or chat box. No, the only way these ads could have been targeted at you is if your phone was listening while idle. And then you wonder for a moment and forget about it until it happens again, which it surely does. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat until you no longer notice it.

They have the upper hand

The impulse to scoff and brush off such an anomaly makes sense. Thinking too hard about being surveilled in such a way with such ease is enough to ramp up the paranoia. Rationalising away the situation with a “well, I guess my iPhone is just trying to help” or “meh, it’s only advertising” is a form of acceptance. 

Those attempting to get to the bottom of this phenomenon face an uphill battle. The evidence is everywhere but almost strictly anecdotal – a fact that tech companies use to their advantage. For every concerned citizen that reveals that they’ve discussed migraines in a conversation only to discover shortly after that they’d been followed on Twitter by a migraine support group, there’s a Big Tech spokesperson that categorically denies using smartphone microphones to record such conversations. 

It’s not only smartphones 

Smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa are only supposed to listen and record when prompted by what’s known as a wakeword – whether “OK, Google” or “Alexa”. A report published by California-based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog revealed that these digital assistants can be awake even when not in use. The group’s privacy and technology project director, John Simpson, claims that these products exist primarily to gather as much information about you and your loved ones as possible. 

The same claims have been made about Smart TVs, tablets, laptops and even home appliances such as thermostats and refrigerators. 

What does it all mean? 

The more devices and appliances that adopt smart technology, the more our homes and offices take on a life of their own. The near-distant future looks like something out of a sci-fi horror film, where ‘alive’ machines are constantly listening, watching and using our words and feelings as a means of manipulating and controlling our behaviours. If you think that sounds outlandish, it’s already happening with the aforementioned targeted advertisements. The next time you make an online purchase, ask yourself: was it really my idea in the first place?

Can I do anything about it?

In short, yes, though in some cases your device will lose functionality. 

For phones:

Disable your voice assistant – both Siri and Ok, Google are always on, waiting for the wakeword. Disabling them means that your phone’s microphone is far less likely to listen to your private conversations. 

Disable microphone access for applications – some apps, particularly social media apps, bank on the likelihood that you’ll allow them access to your microphone. In your smartphone’s settings, you can manually turn off microphone access for each application. 

Turn off audio-specific features – such as Google’s ‘Now Playing’ feature or Apple’s ‘Dictation’ feature. 

For smart speakers:

Stop the manufacturer from accessing your data – in the settings for both Alexa and Google Assistant, you can prevent your data from being accessed. You can find instructions here.

Delete all voice history – both Amazon and Google store post-wakeword audio, but you can manually delete it. Find out how, here

Ditch your smart speaker – the above measures stop your device from recording data whilst active, but who knows what’s being done while idle. If you want to eliminate all potential manipulation, do you really need a smart speaker?

However, if you want complete technological freedom…

…then it’s time to discover the growing market of privacy-first alternatives. Every day, more and more users are switching over to hardware and software solutions that cut Big Tech out of the picture through end-to-end encryption. You get all the (and in many cases, more) functionality, without having to sacrifice your privacy and security. We source only the best alternative tech on the planet.

We believe in a world where you can enjoy its technological innovations without having to sign over your private life so that big business can make bigger profits. Do you? 

Posted in: Security

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