In recent years, there have been numerous stories in the media about web-enabled devices behaving unexpectedly in response to spoken words or phrases.
There have also been allegations that our devices are listening to us when they shouldn’t be.
This often relates to targeted advertising appearing after a conversation about a particular product or service – even though the phones weren’t used, and nothing was searched for.
So is there any truth to the rumours of smartphones spying on us, and tablets silently monitoring our every word?
The silent partner
The simple answer is yes. Tablets and smartphones are listening to you all the time.
Voice-activated virtual assistants like Siri use a device’s integral microphone to monitor conversations and identify instructions aimed in their direction.
When you say OK Google, an Android handset will suddenly spring into life.
This can only happen when (a) a device is listening out for trigger words, and (b) permission has been granted for it to utilise inputs via the microphone.
The effect on battery life is negligible, and data usage isn’t significantly higher.
So far, so reasonable.
Unfortunately, the information your device records might also be available to third-party agencies.
Anything other than a direct device command is known as non-triggered data, and any application installed on your phone with microphone permissions could potentially hear it.
The Facebook app is renowned for displaying adverts in direct response to conversations held in the presence of (but not involving) mobile devices.
Conversational data isn’t officially supplied to third-party agencies, but a leading expert admitted last summer that audio snippets could easily be relayed to certain businesses.
Non-triggered voice data is encrypted prior to transmission, so there’s no obvious way of identifying what’s being sent.
Nor do we know why some words seem to incite targeted advertising campaigns where others don’t.
Has anyone admitted involvement?
The big social media platforms vehemently deny this happens, despite a wealth of anecdotal evidence on Reddit and investigations conducted by the BBC and Vice, among others.
Apple and Google also flatly deny user ‘utterance’ data is sold to advertisers – though the word ‘sold’ is significant. They may still be providing it, possibly by accident.
It’s not illegal for third-party app providers to receive snippets of user data gleaned by a device monitoring conversations.
However, such actions would be difficult to justify morally if they were widely known about, especially after last year’s Cambridge Analytica revelations.
Protecting your privacy
Although agencies of the state have unspecified powers to eavesdrop on us, conversations held in the presence of a smartphone are hardly in the public domain.
If you’re chatting to a friend about buying someone a birthday present, very few smartphone apps could recognise this – let alone display targeted adverts on your phone in response.
Even so, a few simple steps ought to prevent smartphones spying on you:
Delete apps. If an app isn’t on your phone, it can’t be granted permission to use the microphone, which is where these privacy issues tend to arise.
View content through websites. Access social media platforms through a desktop browser rather than an app, since web browsers record less data about each visit.
Turn off the handset. If you need to have a sensitive conversation, switch off your phone altogether. Or alternatively…
Hide it away. Prevent smartphones spying on you by putting them in a drawer or cupboard while discussing anything you’d rather advertisers didn’t know about.