a phone with an ear that is listening to the conversations around it

From Siri and Google Assistant to the dozens of apps that may have access to your microphone, it’s safe to say that your phone is probably listening to you. More often than not, it’s done to improve user experience, but it still causes privacy concerns for users that don’t want to be listened to.

Follow along to learn more about the threats associated with your phone listening in on your conversations, and learn how to stop it from happening.

Table of contents

    Does your phone listen to you?

    Back in the days of landline phones, your only fear was that your phone could be tapped by intelligence agencies. But unless you were neck-deep in some illegal activities, this wasn’t a rational concern to have.

    Nowadays, your phone is constantly filtering the sounds around you for trigger words such as “OK, Google” or “Hey, Siri” to activate voice assistants. Unfortunately, this has led to sketchy audio recording practices and data breaches in the past.

    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 and highly personal conversations that fell into the hands of random people.

    After the storm, companies rushed to damage control. For example, Google opted their users out of voice data collection in 2020, which may be seen as an indication that something fishy was happening there in the first place.

    Why is your phone listening to you?

    Your phone listens to you so that it can hear your voice commands and react to them accordingly. When it receives a question or request, your phone searches the internet to provide the best answer. Much like with using Google, your voice searches can be tracked and used to show targeted ads. 

    Here’s a slightly more in-depth look at what a phone does with your voice commands:

    1. Granting your requests

    Firstly, virtual assistants listen to smartphone users to provide convenient access to handy features. You can simply tell your assistant to do something instead of having to do it yourself. That could be ordering stuff from Amazon, using Google Maps to find the best routes, or simply sending someone a message.

    1. Keeping tabs on your internet activity

    In a way, assistants are much like a Google search that you perform by saying the question instead of typing it. Yet, just like search engines, phones collect and store your preferences to show personalized content. That’s how your audio data can end up being used for location tracking and marketing purposes.

    1. Showing targeted ads

    Targeted advertising is a pesky everyday thing 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 your phone collect?

    Your voice assistant can collect quite a fat chunk of data from audio recordings. 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;
    • The name of your device, as well as names of devices in Family Sharing;
    • 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.

    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 you?

    Without your consent, it would be illegal for phones to listen to you. However, you allow your phone to listen to you by allowing apps to access your microphone and accepting their terms and conditions. As a result, they’re listening to you with your permission, which is not illegal.

    However, mobile devices can also listen to you illegally when you don’t consent to such app permissions. Most commonly, this happens when a phone is infected with malware, which allows bad actors to listen to you.

    It’s common knowledge that most people don’t read the 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 and look for anything suspicious. To finish it off, review app permissions and don’t give microphone access to apps that don’t really need it.

    How can you stop your phone from listening to you?

    The best way to stop your phone from listening to you is to disable microphone access for applications in your phone’s settings. The process of doing so may be slightly different depending on your phone and OS (Operating System) version.

    Disable microphone access on iOS devices

    There are two things you need to do to make sure no unwanted app or feature has access to your microphone. First, turn off Siri altogether, then turn off microphone permissions for your apps.

    How to turn off Siri

    • Go to Settings > Siri & Search;
    • Turn off Listen for “Hey Siri” and Press Side Button for Siri options;
    • Tap on Turn Off Siri in the pop-up.
    screenshot of Siri and search settings on iOS device

    How to turn off microphone access for apps on iOS

    • Go to the Settings app;
    • Locate and tap on the Privacy & Security settings;
    • Tap on the Microphone option;
    • Toggle off the switch next to your apps to deny microphone access.

    Disable microphone access on Android devices

    If you’re an Android user, follow the same two basic steps to stop your phone from listening to you. First, turn off Google Assistant, then deny microphone access to your apps.

    How to turn off Google Assistant

    • 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.
    Google Assistant Voice Match settings screenshot

    Depending on your device and Android version, this option might be disabled by default in your Google Assistant settings. Either way, double-checking never hurts, especially when your privacy is at risk.

    How to turn off microphone access for apps on Android

    • Go to Settings, then Apps;
    • Continue to Manage apps
    • Choose the app you want to deny microphone access for;
    • Tap App permissions, and proceed to Microphone;
    • Select Don’t allow.
    screenshot of Android microphone permission settings

    How can you protect your privacy on a smartphone?

    The online world is not only helpful and entertaining, but it can also be dangerous. That said, you can take your online privacy and security into your own hands by being cautious, aware of threats, and ways to avoid them. Here are some things you can do to protect yourself online:

    • Only download apps from official app stores. Doing so 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 (Virtual Private Network) as it encrypts your connection and hides your IP address. This way, your online activity is effectively masked from hackers, ISP monitoring, and other threats;
    • Set up a strong password, fingerprint, face ID, 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 malware that might infect your phone;
    • Be aware of the signs that tell your phone may be hacked and of ways to fix a hacked phone if this does happen. 

    Should I be concerned about my phone listening to me?

    Whether or not you should be concerned about your phone listening to you depends on your perception. For most people, the only noticeable effect of this is getting targeted ads and personalized search results, which not all users hate. 

    The fact is that in order to give you such results and ads, parts of your data must first reach the advertisers and search engines. This data is gathered partially through voice assistants. If you want to keep your data protected, you better switch the voice assistant off and use a VPN to encrypt any traffic coming out of your phone.

    Test if your phone is listening to you

    There’s a simple test you can do to check whether or not your phone is listening to your conversations:

    • Think of a topic. It should be something that you’re not usually interested in so that there would be no records of prior searches or website visits related to the topic;
    • Start talking about it near your phone. After choosing your topic away from your phone and without using Google, start talking about it near your phone. Mix in as many indicating keywords as you can. For example, if you choose boat engines as your topic, say things like “where to buy a boat engine,” “which boat engines are reliable,” “price of a new boat engine,” etc. Make sure that the words you say have a clear intent of buying a boat engine;
    • Check the ads you’re shown. After talking about your topic for a few days, start looking at the ads you’re shown. If you start receiving ads for boat engines or boat-related things, I’ve got news for you — you’re being listened to.

    Take control over what your phone can hear

    Your phone may be listening to you, but that’s only if you allow it. Sure, there are exceptions that can be caused by using sketchy apps or having your phone hacked. But it’s much more likely that you simply decided not to read the Terms and Conditions section when downloading an app or updating your software and gave permission for your phone to listen to you.

    Thankfully, you can simply deny microphone access to apps and voice assistants. That should be enough to take care of the main reasons why your phone is listening to you. And if you want some extra security, consider getting a VPN for your phone and using it whenever you go online. And once you protect yourself from your phone, you may also protect yourself from scam and spam phone calls with a phone number generator.

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    Does your phone listen to you, and how?

    Yes, your phone listens to you. 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 trigger words. There have also been numerous controversies surrounding big tech companies like Apple and Google as they questionably used the gathered voice data.

    Can your phone hear your 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 your smartphone listening to you all the time?

    Your phone could be listening to you at all times since your microphone is constantly on for specific apps. The only way to reduce the problem is to disable mic access to apps that don’t need such permissions. Or, of course, if you just don’t want them snooping around.

    How can you stop your phone from listening to you?

    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 you protect yourself 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.