Is your smartphone listening to your conversations?

An On Your Side Investigation
Julie Zimny discovered the number she’d been given had previously belonged to a prostitute.
Julie Zimny discovered the number she’d been given had previously belonged to a prostitute.(Source: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
Updated: Sep. 27, 2018 at 6:45 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - An ad pops up on your phone just minutes after you were talking about that exact product. It makes you wonder - are our smartphones listening to us?

For our news team, most work days start with a morning and afternoon meeting around a conference table. We plan out the day's stories. But today, we're planning something else. With cell phones out, we planned a pretend trip to the Bahamas and then waited.

It’s something Dr. Brian Krupp a computer science professor at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio has been researching too. Are our phones listening to our conversations and what happens to that information when it leaves your phones?

"If you were to have an application that has access to a microphone, how do you know? And that’s the issue we have today. Consumers don’t have a way of telling that,” Krupp said.

Krupp says many apps use your location, microphone, photos and contacts all with your permission, but Krupp tells us most apps collect more data than expected and sell the information to data brokers. Those companies scoop up information about you.

That gets us back to a trip we wish we could take right now to the Bahamas. We talked about everything from booking flights to bathing suits.

Minutes later, reporter Ashley Knight got an ad about flights on her Instagram feed.

"I’m not sure about anyone else, but I know I said something about fly Delta and within 10 minutes I got this sponsored ad from Delta on my Instagram account,” Ashley said. “It does freak me out a little because I know I haven’t searched Delta. I haven’t done anything with Delta in a really long time.”

So how do you put a stop to this? On the iPhone, go to Settings then down to Privacy and then into microphone. You can see which apps are following you, then simply cut the mic off.

In some cases that may be easier said than done. Krupp has found some apps continue to track you even when you tell them not to.

"Outside of the microphone, we know that other permissions are abused. We know that location is one of the most abused permissions. We know that contacts was an abused permission,” Krupp said.

Krupp says it may come down to people demanding more transparency from companies like Apple and insist they give them better control of their personal information and how its used.

"Take a look at each permission that you grant. Like location, like microphone, like photos and ask yourself, do I really need to grant this particular application to this piece of knowledge,” Krupp said.

Dr. Krupp and his team are creating a tool to tell you what kind of data is being sent. It should be ready for testing later this year.

Facebook who also owns Instagram says it does not use your device’s microphone to listen in on real-life conversations in order to target people with relevant ads.

“Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about,” Facebook posted on its website.

You can find more information here.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated to Congress that his company is not listening to our conversations.

Here’s an exchange from Zuckerberg to Senator Gary Peters of Michigan when Peters asked if the company uses audio from cell phones to “enrich personal information about users”?

"Senator, let me get clear on this, you’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on your microphone and use that for ads. To be clear, we do allow people to take videos on their devices and share those, and videos have audio, so we do while you’re taking a video, record that and use that to make the service is better by making sure your videos have audio, but I think that is pretty clear. But I just wanted to make sure I was exhaustive there,” Zuckerberg said.

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