Are our smartphones listening to every word we say? It’s one of the biggest conspiracy theories going in the 21st century, but somehow the most believable at the same time. It’s the hypothesis that companies have denied again and again, but one that people refuse to give up on.
The awkward thing is, everyone seems to have a story about it. Ask any friend, workmate or acquaintance and they’ll probably willingly tell you about the time they were talking about something completely random – without typing it into any search engine – and adverts for it appeared on their phone just minutes or hours later. One friend told me how he was talking about proposing to his girlfriend and the next thing he knew, three adverts for engagement rings had popped up out of the blue. This phenomenon is widespread online as well, with one Redditor posting online: “I was talking to a friend about a med he takes, next day I’m getting ads about that med. another time I’m flipping back and 4th between 3 channels on my tv, I look at Google now and it gave me the info about those shows I was watching.”
So, we know that platforms like Facebook allow advertisers to target users with ads based on their browsing habits. Seeing an advertisement for Gillette Venus after searching hair removal isn’t unusual. But could the microphones in our iPhones or Androids seriously be picking up on every conversation we have too?
According to Facebook, absolutely not. Officials at the social networking site vehemently deny it, as do big tech firms like Google, which states in its content policy for app developers that apps must not collect information without user knowledge. But just this week Facebook were forced to issue yet another a refutation on their page in response to a question from the host of tech podcast Reply All.
Rob Goldman, the head of advertising at the social network, wrote: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.” He later added that the denial also holds true for Facebook’s other popular social network – Instagram.
But doth the lady protest too much? Many seem to think so, with people insisting that it’s more than just pure coincidence or speculation that’s thrusting the theory into the public eye.
The difficult to shut down allegation has been floating around for years now, with rumours starting back in May 2014 when Facebook launched a feature for its smartphone app named Identity TV and Music which listened for ambient noise whenever a user was writing a status. If the app heard a song on the radio or TV program in the background, it would recognise it and give the user the option of tagging it within their post, the intention being that it would shave valuable seconds off the time it took to write the update.
However, people weren’t impressed and less than a month later Facebook was forced to contest gossip that it was “always listening”, with Gregg Stefancik, Facebook’s head of security infrastructure, stating: “the microphone doesn’t turn itself on, it will ask for permission”. In 2015, chiefs found themselves in trouble yet again when users complained that their battery lives were being drained; it was eventually revealed that audio sessions were staying open in the background after apps were left, prompting speculation that they were again poking their noses in where they shouldn’t. Add in the fact that users have complained that Facebook Messenger normally already has the permission it needs to perform a video or audio conversation and you truly have fuel for the smartphone microphone fire.
Again, one could dismiss this “evidence” as speculation. Yet when the BBC challenged cyber security expert Ken Munro and his colleague David Lodge from Pen Test Partners to see if it was possible to pry in this nosy parker fashion, the answer was a resounding yes. The pair created a prototype app for a piece of investigative journalism, discovering that if they began talking in the vicinity of the phone it was on, their words would immediately appear on the laptop screen. Munro, who claimed it took them just a few days to successfully build, told their reporter: “We gave ourselves permission to use the microphone on the phone, set up a listening server on the internet, and everything that microphone heard on that phone, wherever it was in the world, came to us and we could then have sent back customized ads.”
So, is it really all a big coincidence or is it an underground conspiracy that needs to be shouted about? The truth is that unless tech companies own up, or we stage a break-in at headquarters, we can never truly know for sure. We are bound to sit pondering over ads for flights to The Bahamas, dating services and mattresses for a long time coming. All we can do for now is pray that we get a sun-kissed holiday, perfect partner or good night’s sleep out of it.