We all have experienced this weird feeling when we discuss something with our friends over a cup of coffee, and then we begin seeing ads relevant to that conversation. That’s especially unsettling if we never googled things that are being advertised to us now. This brings us to one thought — our phones are listening to us. But are they though?

Let’s rule out predictive algorithms

With the evolution of machine learning, developers can create way more sophisticated systems that are capable of analyzing user behavior and predicting their next step. And even though predictive algorithms are just getting introduced to Google’s advertisement network, we might see ads of products we just thought of the other day. These ads appear because we bought something or searched for something that has indicated Google’s algorithms that we might want to get this another thing later.

For example, you bought all sorts of stuff for your new puppy recently — bowls, a bed, a harness, and a leash. So quite likely, you’ll see ads for dog toys or grooming products later. That’s not your phone listening to you talking about all the toys you want to get for your pup. It’s a predictive algorithm doing its job. Therefore, before you get all worried about being spied on when you see ads for products you’ve been discussing with someone, try to trace back your memory and recall your search inquiries and products you’ve bought to see if there is any connection.

Can your phone listen to you?

Well, with Siri, Google Assistant, and other voice-activated virtual assistants, it’s out of question whether your phone can hear you or not. It most definitely can. Otherwise, how else your Google Assistant understands you’re talking to it once you say, “Hey, Google”?

We know for sure that Apple picks random user interactions with Siri for analysis to see how they can improve this service. And in 2019, we found out that Siri can get activated by mistake and record sensitive conversations or activities. These recordings might get transferred to some third-parties, although we don’t have clear data on that. Apple said a big sorry for this and promised to fix the issue. Did they do this? We don’t really know. All we know is that we can’t be naive enough to believe that Alexa or Google Assistant doesn’t do the same.

So when you use voice-activated assistants, you definitely give them some data that are later used for advertising. But do they listen to us when the interaction wasn’t triggered? Well, the answer is — quite likely, yes.

The sad truth is that you most definitely agreed to them listening to you when agreed to the terms of use. Did you read those? Yeah, we just hit “Agree”, too. Therefore, voice-activated assistants are listening to your conversations legally.

Another issue is when some app is listening to you without your consent. Be attentive when you install new apps and give them access to certain services. Some applications tend to ask for too much access — way more than they need. If some new app asks for access to unnecessary services, consider just removing it because it might be a malicious program. For example, if you downloaded a calorie counting app that requires access to your microphone — especially if it needs it in the background — that’s suspicious.

How to stop your phone from spying on you?

The first thing you can do is to turn off voice activation for virtual assistants — Siri on iOS and Google Assistant on Android. Sure, that will take away the convenience of activating your assistant with a voice request. But it also will improve your privacy a bit. Wiping your voice request history also will be useful in case someone tries getting access to it.

Additionally, check the access apps have from time to time and cut unnecessary permissions or uninstall suspicious applications altogether. In general, try sticking to reliable and well-known apps instead of downloading some shady programs. Virtual stores try to eliminate malicious apps, but they can’t fight them all.

The same goes for virtual assistants — if you decide to keep using them, stick to official assistants. There are many third-party assistants that seem to be better tailored for certain needs, but it’s better to use those provided by Google, Apple, Amazon, and other well-known developers. While a third-party assistant might be better than those we already know, it may also contain malware or just turn your phone into a spying tool.

Also, don’t forget to update all the apps as well as the system of your phone once updates are released. Outdated software is full of known vulnerabilities hackers can exploit to steal some data from you. So just let your apps get updates automatically when you’re connected to a wireless network.

Finally, don’t forget to use a VPN app, especially when you’re connected to a public WiFi network. iNinja VPN for Android and iOS will mask your IP address thus hiding your device from prying eyes that might have entered the public network and are waiting for a victim.