Is Your Smart Phone Listening to You?

The question of whether your smart phone is listening to your conversations is one that has been circulating since the first iPhone came on the market. Almost everyone has seen an advertisement on a web or social media page for an item that they never searched for but had a conversation about that product or service.

How does this happen? Kind of creepy, right!? Surely, your phone must be eavesdropping on your conversations…

Your phone isn’t supposed to listen to your conversations, but with ever evolving digital assistants such as Siri, Google and Alexa, we feel like “they” are always listening. To understand more about how your phone may be listening to you, and what information digital marketing companies use from the data collected by your phone, keep reading!

Virtual Assistants Are Waiting for the Keyword

The most obvious way your phone listens to you is when you want to use the virtual assistant on Siri or Google. With the hands-off feature, simply saying “hey Siri” or “hey Google” can activate your phone. However, while this is a nice perk for when your phone is far away, it also means that Siri and Google need to be actively listening for this key wake-up word in all your conversations.

Since these assistants need to listen to everything you say, they can also gather information based on your searches, requests and conversations. For example, if you are talking about one of your favorite clothing brands to a friend, the actively listening assistant may catch on to that and send you an ad related to that brand.

Virtual assistants are meant to improve your digital experience, but don’t be surprised if the information they gather is transferred to advertising companies for revenue. They must listen if they want to provide you with accurate search results and targeted ads.

Yes, it is legal for phones to listen to you after you give consent by accepting the terms and conditions of software updates or app downloads. Those conditions are usually that we’ll allow our data to be collected so that we can harness all the wonders and conveniences of voice-assisted programs and services.

Unfortunately, your phone can also listen to you illegally if you have been infected with spyware or malware. For this reason, it’s important to have anti-virus software, limit the permissions you provide to applications, and review the terms and conditions of new programs that ask for microphone access.

Analyzing Browsing History, Cookies, and Location Data

Technically speaking unless you activate your virtual assistant your phone should not be continually recording and storing data from your conversations. However, there are plenty of other ways your phone continuously gathers information on your interests and needs.

Browsing History

One way your phone is gathering information about you is by tracking your browsing history. Every time you enter a Google, Bing, or Yahoo! search, that information is stored in your browser and available for consumption by advertising companies.

In the time it takes to load up a webpage, there are hundreds of ad companies looking to fill the vacant spaces on your screen with targeted advertisements that should make you want to click on them. By tracking your web history, these companies can find what you are interested in and products that you will want to interact with.


The same sort of concept can be used when you click the accept button on website cookie information. Cookies are small pieces of code that can be really helpful in creating a unique and targeted website experience. They hold information such as login usernames, items that are in your cart, and location settings.

However, these cookies also track what websites you visit and how long you interact with them. Not only do they know the overall brands and information that you look for, but they also know the specifics of what you want from those brands. This increases the amount of targeting that can be put into advertisements which in turn increases the likelihood that you will engage with the ad.


The third most popular way your phone gathers information about you is through location data. Not only does location data track where you go and use that information for product and business advertisements, but it can also track when you go to these places.

For example, if you always go to the grocery store after going to the gym, then advertisements may start to show things like healthy foods and drinks. It creates a detailed persona of who you are for advertising purposes.

Location data can also help to identify similar people who seem to frequent businesses more often. If all these top customers have characteristics in common, then this information can be used to target other consumers who also have these traits but aren’t frequenting the business.

And finally, location data can be used to target the customers of competing businesses. If you are consistently going to a competitor’s shop, then businesses that want more consumers can use this information to specifically target you for advertisements and hope to convert your loyalty.

Why Do Advertising Companies Want This Information?

Advertising companies use the information they gather from your phone for a variety of purposes, but the main purpose is to curate and custom-tailor your advertising experience. By using this information to target ads to your devices you are more likely to engage with the ad and create profit for the company. The whole process happens in the span it takes to load up a webpage.

After gathering all the information about your interests and needs, online advertising companies sell this information to the highest bidding company and put their ads in the vacant spaces on webpages and social media platforms.

How to Stop or Limit the Information Gathering by My Phone

There are a few ways to try and manage the amount of information your phone can gather about you. The first is to turn off your hands-free activation of your virtual assistant. This way you can be sure that they are not actively listening for the keywords and the rest of your conversation.

The second option is to do your web browsing on incognito tabs. These tabs erase any information that you have searched for as soon as you close them. This includes any cookies, login information, or Google searches and websites.

And the third best option for stopping your phone from listening to you is to turn off the microphone access to all apps. You can do this in your settings and app permissions. This includes social media platforms that record videos such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.

However, when you turn off all of these features your virtual assistant, voice commands and the ability to receive custom, targeted search results are eliminated.

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