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Is your phone listening, and targeting you with ads?

Published: May. 27, 2022 at 1:01 PM CDT
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Did you ever get the feeling your phone or other smart device is listening to what you say? Maybe you’ve seen ads for products you were talking about, and swore you never did a Google search for them.

Christie Burnett is pretty sure her iPhone is eavesdropping.

“One day my son came up to me and said, ‘Mom, I want a Scorpios Rex for my birthday,’” she said.

“A what?” she thought. So, this mom from Cincinnati’s Anderson Township community decided to look it up.

“I am getting ready to type into the search [field] Scorpios Rex,” she said. “But before I do, he [my son] immediately looks at my screen and says ‘Mom that’s it!’”

Sure enough, on her phone was an ad for the Jurassic Park toy he wanted.

“But I hadn’t even typed anything,” Burnett said.

Your phone? Maybe. Alexa? Probably.

So was her phone listening, or had her 6-year-old looked up the toy on some other device? Many would say this is hard to know with the information we have.

Researchers at the Universities of California, Washington, and Northeastern this spring released a combined study that claims Amazon’s Alexa is definitely listening and targeting you with ads.

After the release of the study, Amazon told The Verge that it targets you with “interest-based ads based on your Alexa requests,” which PCMag’s Chandra Steele says is more than they’ve ever said before.

“Amazon was reluctant to admit it, but once these researchers came forward, they had to,” Steele said. “And these ads follow you around the web.”

Are Amazon, Apple, Google, and others listening to your random conversations? An E.W. Scripps employee in Cincinnati was asked to talk about her favorite makeup.

“I follow Cover Girl and Cover Pop on Instagram,” she announced loudly in front of her phone. “And I like Lash Blast mascara,” she added.

Just in case her phone missed it, she added “I’m a true Cover Girl fan!”

Five minutes later, she checked her social media feeds and found one related ad on her Instagram feed.

“Down here in the caption is Color Pop masks,” she said, describing an ad for one of the items she had just talked about. But that could have been based on her previous Instagram likes.

We found no ads for Cover Girl makeup, which by then the entire newsroom knew that she loved.

So is your phone listening?

Apple says it does not listen to random conversations, saying on its privacy webpage that “privacy is a fundamental human right.”

But internet security expert Dave Hatter of Intrust IT says if your Siri voice feature is on, your iPhone is listening for the wake-up term, just as Amazon’s Alexa is always listening for that wake-up term.

“If you have a smart digital assistant,” he explained, “it has to listen if it is going to provide any help to you.”

To protect yourself, Hatter suggests you:

  • Turn off “Listen for Hey Siri” in your iPhone settings, so that only a button push will awaken the feature.
  • With an Android phone, disable its “OK Google” feature in the settings.
  • Check your phone’s microphone settings.
  • Turn off which apps can use it. You don’t need the microphone for most apps.

Christie Burnett, however, suspects something is going on.

“It really does make you wonder,” she said, after her son’s toy popped up without any typed searches. But with a few adjustments, your phone will be listening less.