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Is your smartphone really eavesdropping on you? Researchers find out.

Most of us have wondered at some point if our smartphones are listening to us. Nothing is confirmed, but the uncanny knack that advertisers have of targeting their ads to us seem to be proof enough for many—talk about working out? Gym ads start popping up. Discuss a new smartphone with your colleagues, and a couple of ads for smartphone sales pop up. But that evidence is still very much circumstantial at the moment.

With that in mind, researchers over at mobile security firm, Wandera, have conducted a study to see if our smartphones are actually listening in on our conversations. Using a Samsung Android smartphone and an iPhone, the researchers put the devices in two rooms: an “audio room” and a “silent room”.

In the first room, they played a loop of dog and cat food adverts, while the second room was kept silent. They then opened the apps for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat, Chrome, and Amazon, with full permissions granted (so that the apps could theoretically eavesdrop).

After half an hour, the devices from the “audio room” were then studied for any targeted ads regarding, or at least resembling, pet food. Nothing relevant came up. Then, the researchers examined the data and battery usage of the smartphones, but there were no spikes, it seems. There was, of course, data usage across the devices, but nothing to indicate that the phones were transmitting recordings from listening in—this was based off the average amount of data that Siri or the Google Assistant usually uses with its voice commands.

“We observed that the data from our tests is much lower than the virtual assistant data over the 30-minute time period, which suggests that the constant recording of conversations and uploading to the cloud is not happening on any of these tested apps. If it was, we’d expect data usage to be as high as the virtual assistants’ data consumption.”

– James Mack, Wandera

So that’s that. Mark Zuckerberg, of course, told the U.S. Senate in 2018 that Facebook does not use microphones in mobile devices to listen in on conversations. This was reiterated by Facebook in an official statement in 2016:

“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.”

The reason why we see ads that seem remarkably relevant to what we’re discussing, apparently, is due to how companies like Google use the data from many of their “free” apps to create an ad profile for each user. This also extends to the Chrome browser, as well as universal sign-in options from both Google and Facebook. If you’re really that concerned about the targeted ads, the best way to avoid them could be to avoid signing in using universal sign-in options, while not signing in with your Google account on Chrome could also help.

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