“Our phones are listening to us and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future”, says Nigel Pereira.

Have you ever had a conversation about something or just mentioned something in a conversation only to find the exact same thing pop up in an ad on Google, Facebook, or YouTube an hour later? Well, you’re not the only one and such incidences have become increasingly common around the world, begging people to ask the question, “are our phones listening to us?”

The short answer is yes, our phones are listening to us and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Richard Serra, a famous American sculptor and video artist was quoted in 1973 saying “if something is free, you are the product.” While this statement referenced televisions and the audience they delivered to advertisers, it still holds true today.

Almost all the phones available today come with one or more voice assistants that can be triggered by “wake words” like Hey Siri, Okay Google, and Alexa. What this also implies is that the apps that power these assistants need to be constantly listening to pick up the wake words, and can even be accidentally triggered. In an interview with The Guardian, an anonymous whistleblower brought attention to the fact that the Apple watch, as well as the HomePod smart speaker, are both notorious for accidentally triggering Siri. He also added that the software often mistakes the sound of a zip with the wake words, Hey Siri. Since zips are usually associated with bags and trousers, recordings can be interesting, to say the least.

Accidental recordings

Jeans Zipper (Image Credit: Stockvault)

In case a machine or AI algorithm recording you constantly isn’t bad enough, knowing that there are going to be humans listening to those recordings later is enough to make a lot of people squirm. That’s right, Apple actually outsources this work to contractors who are tasked with listening to a “small portion” of these recordings to improve Siri and ensure the software understands what we are saying.

This is in no way limited to Apple, Amazon admitted that a “small sample” of Alexa recordings are listened to by employees around the world including America, Costa Rica, and India. Similarly, Google has also admitted that its employees are able to listen to recordings made by Google Assistant.

Now while this is an interesting tangent to our discussion and even includes the fact that Apple has fired several contractors caught listening to Siri recordings of people having sex, it doesn’t answer the question about the ads on our phones. This is because while our phones are indeed listening to us, they aren’t exactly “listening” in conventional terms. Apple, Amazon, and Google all swear that these voice files that are accidentally triggered are only examined to help improve their products and there are no procedures in place to report any content from these recordings. For those to whom these promises hold little value, there’s an interesting article on Esquire to help you deactivate these trigger-happy assistants.

Tracking > Listening

The deactivation of your voice assistants will not, however, stop ads related to products you were just talking about popping up on your screen because what’s happening there is a lot more than simple eavesdropping. What it is, is the data that we are producing at an alarmingly increasing rate that is being tracked, analyzed, and decoded in order to almost accurately predict what we are going to do next. This isn’t surprising, Asian Paints uses an AI and ML predictive tool to accurately predict the demand for specific products in different store locations on a particular day while German Ecommerce firm Otto can predict what consumers will buy with a 90% accuracy. Add to that the highly personalized nature of all the data on your phone and it isn’t unthinkable.

What this means, according to Data protection advocate Mariano delli Santi, is that “advertisers don’t need to listen to know everything about you.” She then goes on to talk about “behavioral advertising” which refers to a profile of each person that has been built over time using the data that we produce every time we visit a link, like a post, or use an application. These profiles are then served up to advertisers who can bid on the ones most likely to buy their products. She also talks about how these profiles are even linked when two people are in a relationship or live together so that a product that one person is interested in will pop up on the other person’s phone.

In conclusion, while our phones may not be listening to us in the traditional sense of the word, the fine print of most software agreements allows our data to be used for advertising purposes. The fact that digital media and advertising has changed so much over the past few decades hasn’t changed the fact that if something is free, we are still, without a doubt, the products.

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With a background in Linux system administration, Nigel Pereira began his career with Symantec Antivirus Tech Support. He has now been a technology journalist for over 6 years and his interests lie in Cloud Computing, DevOps, AI, and enterprise technologies.

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