Q. Call me paranoid, but I think my cell phone is listening to me. I was planning a funeral and searching on Google for funeral homes. I had just typed “funera” and Google suggested funeral homes near me and other funeral-related topics.
Just then, a friend called me and recommended I make funeral potatoes for the reception I was hosting after the service. (I have an iPhone, but I was talking to my friend on a landline phone.) I had never heard of funeral potatoes before so after I finished talking to her, I went to search again.
This time, when I typed in “funera”, Google suggested funeral potatoes first.
I felt surprised and a bit creeped out by this. I wondered if my phone was snooping on me.
So I called my nephew and told him what happened. He thought it was a coincidence but then he experimented and the exact same thing happened to him.
Here’s the email he sent me —
I ran the following experiment:
1) Typed “funera” into Google. Before backspacing, obtained the following auto-complete entries:
funeral homes near me
2) Said the words “funeral potatoes” out loud. Retyped “funera” into Google. Obtained the following auto-complete entries:
How is this happening? Is my cell phone always listening to me? How can I turn it off?
A. You’re not alone. Our phones may indeed be listening to us, even when we are not using them. Stories on the Internet tell of people who say words and then either get search results or targeted ads based on words they said aloud in the presence of their cell phones.
See, CNET, Coincidence or is my phone listening to me?
When you give an app permission to use your microphone, you don’t know when the app is actually using the microphone. Cell phones don’t have any lights or icons indicating when their microphones are turned on. Unlike location services, which show an arrow on the upper tool bar of the phone when in use, microphone access isn’t shown when active.
According to the BBC, Google and Facebook deny using voice data for advertising or other purposes.
Google said it “categorically” does not use what it calls “utterances” – the background sounds before a person says, “OK Google” to activate the voice recognition – for advertising or any other purpose. It also said it does not share audio acquired in that way with third parties.”
Its listening abilities only extend to activating its voice services, a spokesperson said.
Facebook also told the BBC it does not allow brands to target advertising based around microphone data and it never shares data with third parties without consent.
Testing Whether a Phone Can Listen to You
The BBC asked developers find out whether they could create an app that could activate a phone’s microphone and transmit what was being said near the phone, without the user knowing this was happening.
The developers were successful in creating such an app and called the process “remarkably easy.” The app worked without using much power or data, so the user of the phone would never know that the app was using the microphone or how the information collected was being used.
This video shows how the developers were successful in creating the app:
See, BBC, Is your smartphone listening to you?
Benefits of Tech Listening to You
Many services on the Internet are free, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other sites. But advertising is sold to pay for these free services.
=> Don’t miss, How to Find Out What Google Knows About You.
By listening to you, apps may be able to give more relevant search results and ads.
Or, you may not want your phone listening to you.
[note] I have tested to see whether my search results or ads I saw changed based on what I said out loud around both an Android phone and an iPhone. I have not seen any search results or ads change based on my spoken words. [/note]
How to Stop Your Phone from Listening to You
You can do your own experiment to see whether your phone is listening to you. But regardless of whether you think your phone is listening to you, be sure to check the permissions you’ve given apps to access the microphone.
Some apps need the microphone access to work properly, but others don’t. Never give permission to use your microphone unless the app needs access to it.
Some apps need the microphone to function. For example, Shazam, an app that identifies a song as it’s being played, must use the phone’s microphone to listen to songs. But other apps may not need the microphone to work so shouldn’t have access to it.
Turn off the microphone for any apps you don’t want to have access to your microphone. You may want to turn off microphone access for all of the apps on your phone. If you find that you miss the app having microphone access you can always turn it back on again.
iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch
To make sure apps aren’t listening to you, turn off microphone access on your iPhone. Go to:
Settings => Privacy => Microphone to see a list of the apps that have asked for permission to use your microphone.
Turn off permission for any apps you don’t want using your iPhone’s microphone.
Some Android phones allow you to see which apps have permission to use your microphone and turn off that permission.
To turn off microphone access, go to:
Settings => Privacy and Emergency => App permissions => Microphone to see a list of apps that have permission to access your microphone.
If you have an Android phone that does not let you turn off app permissions for the microphone, you can turn the phone’s power off or leave the phone in another room to make sure you aren’t being listened to.
Or you can try a microphone blocking app from the Google Play store. These apps have had mixed reviews so you may need to try different ones to see if one works well for you.
Have you ever suspected your phone was listening to you? Do you wish your phone indicated when the microphone was in use? Have you tried the “funeral potatoes” test or a similar test to see whether your phone is listening to you?
Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.