Your Phone Is Not Listening to You

Have you ever talked about a product, and then suddenly got an ad for it on your phone? We’ve all been there, and then skeptically looked over our shoulders for the advertiser lurking in the shadow. But there’s no one there, so we all simply conclude that our phone must be listening to our conversations. You wouldn’t be crazy for thinking that, but it is flat-out wrong. Your phone is not listening to you.

The myth that your phone’s microphone is constantly on, and is listening to your conversations and selling that data to advertisers, is one of the most pervasive myths about technology. It didn’t help when a local advertising company falsely claimed, “It’s true. Your devices are listening to you,” in December. It was a complete lie, that CMG Local Solutions took off their site after 404 Media caught them red-handed. However, this myth originated a long time ago.

Origins of the Myth

“So a lot of people are pretty freaked out about this item from Facebook where they can listen in on your conversations,” said reporter Melanie Michael to thousands of viewers in Tampa Bay on live TV. The news segment ran on May 23rd, 2016, with an article coming out a few days earlier.

Here’s how to disable microphone so Facebook can’t listen in

“So, be careful what you say in the presence of your phone,” said the 2016 article. “Facebook is not only watching but also listening to your cell phone.”

That article has since been removed from WFLA News Channel 8’s website, but it’s the first instance Gizmodo can find of a major publication reporting this myth. The impact is still felt today, roughly eight years later. The article quotes University of South Florida professor of communications, Kelli Burns. However, Burns never actually said that Facebook was listening to you.

The article quotes Burns as saying “Facebook is watching” and that “I don’t think that people realize how much Facebook is tracking every move we’re making online.”

Burns published a blog post weeks after WFLA’s story went viral, noting that she never actually said that Facebook was listening to you. “Watching, not listening,” said Burns in the post. “Never said listening. And by watching I mean tracking.”

Why in 2016?

So it was largely a misunderstanding that produced the myth, but it’s not a coincidence that it occurred in 2016. That was around the time that Facebook started ramping up its targeted advertising.

In August 2016, The Washington Post reported that Facebook suddenly offered 98 new personal data points to advertisers. The data includes a person’s age, gender, ethnicity, home value, and more.

Facebook has become a trillion-dollar company, largely due to its incredible targeted advertising. Marketing companies love working with Facebook because it offers better data than any other platform in the world.

Facebook has also completely abused this data, getting wrapped up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal just two years after the myth took off. At that point, it wasn’t too far-fetched for people to believe that Facebook was also listening to your phone’s microphone. They’d already abused your privacy more than any other company, so tapping your microphone didn’t sound crazy.

Needless to say, the damage was done. Vice added fuel to the fire in 2018, publishing a 2018 article saying, “Your Phone Is Listening and it’s Not Paranoia.” The article then mentions later on that your phone isn’t actually recording you, but only does so when you say “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google.”

Why Is This Myth Pervasive?

The myth has taken off so much in the last eight years because it feels like it could be true. You do get hyper-targeted ads on Facebook and Google, but it’s not because your phone is listening to you.

You may be typing your thoughts into your phone more than you realize. Yes, you talked about booking a trip to Hawaii, but did you also briefly Google how much flights cost? Did you ask Siri what the best hikes in Maui were? Did you text search on Instagram for beautiful restaurants inside a volcano? That information is sold to advertisers, and you probably tell your phone more than you think.

There’s a bounty of evidence that advertisers can use your search queries, social media usage, and cookies to build a superbly accurate picture of you. That information is tracked by advertisers, so they don’t need your microphone.

However, researchers from Northeastern University tackled this myth in 2018 and found it’s a complete bust. They tested Facebook, Instagram, and over 17,000 other apps, and the researcher found zero instances of an app unexpectedly activating your microphone and sending audio out when not prompted to do so.

For iPhones, an orange dot appears at the top of your screen to indicate your microphone is in use, however, the myth has taken on a life of its own. The more concerning thing is that advertisers don’t need to record you at all, because they already know everything about you.

By 111 Tech

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