Voice assistants: are they still listening to you in 2021?

Most of us couldn’t even imagine today’s digital lifestyle without a smartphone. It’s like going back in time to the Stone Age!

That said, it’s also likely that you sometimes utter those magic words: Ok, Google, or Hey, Siri to make your life even easier.

But is that all there is to it? Maybe you saw ads for things you wanted after talking with your best buddy?

Then, this thought may have crossed your mind: Is my phone listening to me?

    Do phones really listen to you?

    Yes, they do. Sounds surreal, doesn’t it? But is it that hard to believe when virtual assistant apps such as Google Assistant and Siri require your device’s onboard microphone to be on for picking up “hotwords”? Hotwords (or voice triggers) are verbal phrases like Ok, Google, or Hey, Siri essential to activate voice assistants.

    That means tech companies have no better way to collect your voice data. And unsurprisingly, your audio recordings can be used to breach your online privacy

    Suspicions first appeared when voice assistant practices came under scrutiny after people found out third-party contractors were transcribing audio recordings for Google and Apple. These recordings contained intimate conversations so imagine a random person hearing all your secrets, the good and the bad.

    After the storm, companies rushed to damage control. For example, Google opted out their users of voice data collection in 2020. Pretty obvious something fishy was going on, huh?

    Why is my phone listening to me?

    You might be wondering why phones listen to you in the first place. Here are the main reasons why:

    1. To grant your requests

    Firstly, virtual assistants listen to smartphone users to provide convenient access to handy features. That could be ordering stuff you like from Amazon, using Google Maps to find the best routes, or simply calling someone or sending them a message. After all, it’s simply in our nature to seek improvements for our daily routines. Surely using our voice instead of our lazy fingers is no exception.

    1. To keep tabs on your internet activity

    In a way, assistants are verbal search engines and absorb audio to fulfill your wishes. Yet, just like search engines, phones routinely collect and store your preferences to show personalized content. That’s how your audio data can end up used for location tracking and marketing purposes, so don’t underestimate your smartphone’s spy power.

    1. To show you targeted ads

    Targeted advertising is a pesky everyday blight that you’re bound to notice one day or another. After analyzing your online activity, these ads are customized to fit your personality profile. Sadly, phones listening in on you is no different than seeing your search history as audio recordings can reveal just as much about you

    A typical example would be ads on social media platforms, like your Facebook feed showing you items that you’ve discussed in a phone call or live conversation.

    What data does my phone collect?

    Your voice assistant can collect quite a fat chunk of data from audio recording, so here’s an example of what information Siri has access to:

    • Contact names, nicknames, and relationships (for example, “my dad”), if you set them up in your contacts.
    • Music and podcasts you enjoy.
    • Names of your and your Family Sharing members’ devices.
    • Names of accessories, homes, scenes, and members of a shared home in the Home app.
    • Labels for items, such as people’s names in Photos, Alarm names, and names of Reminders lists.
    • Names of apps installed on your device and shortcuts you added through Siri.

    Apple claims that this data is not tied to your Apple ID but to a random identifier generated by the device. The company also states that it isn’t sold or used for building a marketing profile and that might be true as the most important thing is to improve the voice recognition model. That means improving the voice assistant service to recognize voices better.

    Naturally, other voice assistants have access to more or less similar data. So, if you’re using something other than Siri, you’re definitely not off the hook.

    Is it legal for phones to listen to me?

    Yes, it’s perfectly legal because you accept the terms and conditions of downloaded apps that require voice permissions. 

    However, mobile devices can also listen to you illegally when you don’t consent to such app permissions or malware infects your devices.

    It’s common knowledge that most people don’t read terms of conditions and simply accept them due to how long and complicated they are. But if you do have the time and motivation, check them out. See if there’s nothing suspicious. To finish it off, review app permissions and limit them for specific apps.

    How do I stop my phone from listening to me?

    The best way to stop your phone from listening to you is to disable mic access for applications in your phone’s settings. Having said that, here are a few simple steps you can follow on your devices.

    For Google Assistant (Android):

    • Go to Settings and then Google.
    • Proceed to Settings for Google apps and tap Search, Assistant & Voice.
    • Go to Voice, select Voice Match and toggle off Hey Google.
    For Google Assistant - privacy settings

    Depending on your device and Android version, this option might be disabled by default in your Google Assistant settings. In that case, double-checking never hurts, as gambling with your default settings isn’t worth the risk.

    For Siri (iOS):

    • Go to Settings > Siri & Search.
    • Turn off Listen for “Hey Siri” and Press Side Button for Siri.
    • Tap on Turn Off Siri in the pop-up.
    for Siri - privacy settings

    For other apps:

    It’s essential to remember that not only voice assistants have access to your phone’s microphone. Here’s how you can disable microphone access for other apps on your device:

    On iOS devices:

    • Go to Settings, then Privacy.
    • Proceed to Microphone.
    • Tap the microphone switch next to Facebook to disable microphone access.
    On iOS devices - Facebook privacy settings

    On Android devices:

    • Go to Settings, then Apps.
    • Continue to Manage apps and Facebook.
    • Tap App permissions, and proceed to Microphone.
    • Select Don’t allow.
    On Android devices - Facebook privacy settings

    These steps use Facebook’s microphone access as an example because the company is notorious for maliciously collecting data, but you can use them for any app you like.

    How can I protect my privacy on a smartphone?

    The online world is not only helpful and entertaining but also dangerous. That said, there are some steps you can take to skyrocket your smartphone security to the next level:

    • Only download apps from app stores as that will protect you from malicious third-party apps.
    • Check out app permissions and disable microphone access for any apps that don’t need it.
    • Update your operating system as updates contain security upgrades that protect you against malware.
    • Use a VPN as it encrypts your connection and hides your IP address. This way, your online activity is effectively masked from hackers, ISP monitoring, and more.
    • Set up a strong password, fingerprint, or PIN code on your phone. This will protect your device in case of theft or loss.
    • Use antivirus software as it will protect you from any malware that might infect your phone.

    In the end, is phone snooping a big deal?

    So, your phone is listening but is it really that bad? Well, it all depends on your perception. 

    You might enjoy seeing personalized ads as it helps you buy things. Or you might feel creeped out, too. But consider this: We never really know if that’s the only way tech companies exploit our data. 

    So, why not take a safe bet and protect your online privacy?

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    FAQ:

    Does my phone listen to me, and how?

    Yes, it does. Phone listening is a proven fact as voice assistants require your microphone to be enabled at all times, and they need it to pick up wake words. There have also been numerous controversies surrounding big tech companies like Apple and Google as they questionably used the gathered voice data.

    Can my phone hear my conversations?

    Yes, it can. As voice assistants and some other apps need your microphone to be always on, they record your conversations and calls as well. That being said, companies can record any private information near your phone. Unfortunately, they can exploit it for targeted advertising or location tracking, and so on.

    Is my smartphone listening to me all the time?

    Yes, it is, as your microphone is constantly on for specific apps. The only way to reduce the problem is disabling mic access to apps that don’t need such permissions. Or, of course, if you just don’t want them snooping around.

    How do I stop my phone from listening to me?

    Simply disable microphone access for any apps that you don’t want listening in on you. Especially for voice assistants like Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa.

    How can I protect myself while using a smartphone?

    Easy-peasy, you can simply follow these guidelines to secure your phone:

    • Only download apps from official app stores.
    • Use antivirus software,
    • Update your operating system.
    • Use a VPN.
    • Set up a strong password, fingerprint, or PIN code.