When Apple debuted virtual assistant “Siri” in 2011, your iPhone began listening to you. Google and Amazon quickly followed suits with their voice assistants, which wait in standby mode to hear their “wake” words like “hey Alexa.” After living with Siri for 10 years, it seems likely that third-party apps might be listening in, too—especially when ads are so hyper-targeted that it feels like someone is listening to your conversations.
It’s happened to all of us: You’re sitting around, scrolling through your Facebook feed, talking to a friend about your craving for pizza. The next day, your feed is flooded with ads for pizza delivery. Was your phone listening in on your conversation?
According to a 2019 survey by Consumer Reports, 43 percent of Americans believe their phone is recording their conversations without permission—and they’re not wrong. Any device with a microphone, and any third-party app to which you grant microphone access, can listen to you. They can also potentially record and transcribe your audio.
But are apps actually using this information to serve you ads? It turns out the answer is a little more complicated. While voice assistants and third-party apps technically have the ability to record your private conversations, the effort and storage space required to do so isn’t usually worth it, especially when advertisers have much more efficient ways of serving targeted ads.
Are voice assistants listening to me?
Voice-activated digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa, and are always listening, so they can activate when they hear their wake words: “hey Siri,” “hey Google,” “okay Google,” or simply “Alexa.” Once that happens, your speech request is sent to a server in the cloud to process (because assistants don't have the computational capacity to do complicated processing locally). This server transcribes your speech and processes your request.
According to Apple, Google, and Amazon, your speech is retained and uploaded only after the hot word is recognized. However, they do transcribe whatever request you make of your assistant.
There’s one other reason your interactions with your digital assistant may be recorded: quality control. In 2019, Apple apologized for the lack of transparency surrounding its “grading” program, where third-party contractors listened to a small fraction of users’ interactions with Siri and graded Siri’s responses for quality. Users were shocked to discover that someone might actually be listening to their conversations with Siri, especially when factoring in how easy it is for Siri to accidentally activate when hearing something that sounds similar to “hey Siri.” Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant came under fire for similar practices. Now, all three companies require users to opt in before their audio recordings are used for quality practices.
So, what do tech companies do with these recordings and transcripts?
- Apple claims that the Siri recordings it stores are never used for marketing purposes, only to improve Siri. However, when allowing third-party apps to use Siri, you’ll be subject to that app’s terms and conditions—which may not be as privacy-protective.
- Google admits that interactions with Google Assistant may be used to “deliver more useful ads.”
- Amazon is vague—they say your interactions with Alexa are used to “improve your experience and our services.”
Are smartphone apps listening to me?
In addition to your digital voice assistant, third party apps can record your audio. Here’s how this works:
- Your phone has a microphone built into it, which can “listen” to you whenever it’s activated.
- Apps like Facebook Messenger, Duolingo, and Instagram require you to give them access to your microphone in order for you to make a call, get feedback on your foreign language pronunciation, or record a Story to share with your followers.
- When you give these apps access to your microphone, you give them carte blanche rights to listen to your audio. To learn what permissions you give them by allowing access, you have to take the time to read their (often very dense) privacy policies and terms and conditions.
But while apps do have permission to record you, they may not actually be doing so—because this actually isn’t the most efficient way to serve you targeted ads.
For most people, the idea that your phone is listening to your conversations and then serving you a relevant ad is easier to understand than what’s really going on, which is that data collection has become so widespread, and advertising algorithms so advanced, that advertisers can actually predict what you’re interested in on a level that feels like your conversations are being listened to.
In a study of 17,260 Android apps, researchers from Northeastern University found that many apps shared screenshots of users interacting with the apps with third parties without users’ knowledge, some of which contained sensitive information. None of the apps, however, actually collected audio recordings from users. With access to such a wide array of personal information, including screen captures, browsing history, search history, location, demographics, and social media interactions, it seems that recording and analyzing your conversations just isn’t high leverage for advertisers.
In 2016, Facebook released a statement claiming that it “does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.” In a 2019 interview with CBS News, Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, echoed this sentiment: “We don't look at your messages, we don't listen in on your microphone, doing so would be super problematic for a lot of different reasons.”
Still, you shouldn’t assume that your conversations are private. Alphonso is a tech startup that collects data about what you’re watching on TV, using microphone access granted to third-party apps, and then sells that information to advertisers. Alphonso claims that it does not record human speech, but its existence does show that when you allow apps to access your microphone, they may record sounds without your knowledge.
How to block specific apps from listening in
Apps will often ask for your permission to use your microphone. Apple iPhones do not distinguish between different access levels, so choosing to grant microphone access is binary: you either deny it, or you grant it carte blanche. Granting it gives the app background access to the microphone.
"Be very careful before giving an application background access to your phone's microphone or location,” advises Sridhar Ramaswamy, co-founder of Neeva. “Given that most of us have our phones around us 24/7, these permissions are just too dangerous."
Here’s how to disable microphone access:
- On an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy, and you’ll be able to see which third-party apps have access to your microphone, photos, and more. For Apple’s built-in apps, like Safari, you’ll need to go to Settings > [app name] > Microphone.
- On an Android phone, you can go to Settings > Apps, and then you can check what exactly each app has access to.
How to change the settings on your voice assistant
If you use a digital voice assistant, your interactions aren’t likely to ever be 100 percent private. But there are some steps you can take to gain more control over this technology.
For Apple’s Siri:
- To deny Apple access to audio recordings: On your iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Analytics & Improvements > turn off Improve Siri & Dictation.
- To turn off Siri: Go to Settings > Siri & Search > tap to turn off “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” and “Press Home or Side Button for Siri.”
- To disable dictation: Go to Settings > General > Keyboard, then tap to turn off Enable Dictation.
- To delete your Siri request history that is associated with your random identifier and stored for six months: Go to Settings > Siri & Search > Siri & Dictation History, then tap Delete Siri & Dictation History.
To see which apps integrate with Siri: Go to Settings > Siri & Search > [app name] > Use with Siri.
For Google Assistant:
- To deny Google access to audio recordings: On your device, go to the Assistant Activity page and go to Audio Recordings settings. You may need to sign in to your Google Account.
- To delete your Assistant activity: On your device, go to the Assistant Activity page and navigate to the Google Assistant banner on the top right. Tap or click on More > Delete activity by > All time > Delete.
For Amazon Alexa:
- To deny Amazon access to audio recordings: You can manage your Alexa privacy settings on the Alexa app or on the Amazon website on your desktop on the Alexa Privacy Settings page. On your phone, open the Alexa app then go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa.
- To delete your voice recordings: On your phone, open the Alexa app then go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. On your desktop, go to the Alexa Privacy Settings page on the Amazon website.
How to protect yourself from other types of tracking
While disabling microphone access for some apps may give you peace of mind, it won’t reduce targeted online advertising. Luckily, there are some things you can do to increase your data privacy online, like restricting location services to in-app use only and choosing a private search engine.
Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Sign up today and try Neeva for yourself: neeva.com/signup.