Is my phone listening to me? What’s true and what’s false about data handling

Targeted ads are a hot topic of discussion, with their accuracy becoming eerie at best—and criminal at worst. Everyone has a story about their phone listening in.

For example, you’re grabbing coffee with a friend and mention that you’ve been eyeing a new tablet. You get home and begin mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, when an ad pops up for that very tablet, sold at a tech store in your neighborhood. You’re sure you’ve never visited this store, nor have you searched online for information about the tablet. Your conclusion? It’s your phone listening in on your conversation.

Everyone seems to have a similar anecdote. So what’s the verdict? Are our phones listening to us? What information do and don’t smart devices and apps collect on us, and how does this information help us or hurt us?

guy on phone

What they use

It’s no secret that companies are constantly collecting information on the public in order to gain insights and connect products and services with customers. The ads you click, the content you share on social media, the locations where you check in, the emails you send, your browsing habits… all of these clues help companies show you exactly what you want to see, and they don’t deny this.

In light of this flood of data collection and use, data protection has become a hot topic of discussion in recent years. Roger McNamee, early tech advisor to Mark Zuckerberg and now fierce critic of Facebook, made news in 2018 when he wrote a 6,000-word op-ed in the Washington Monthly exposing the social network’s shady handling of data and malpractice. The same year, Zuckerberg testified before the US Senate and Congress. 

But the site and other major players are cracking down in response to these growing concerns, hiring more data security experts and focusing on using data first and foremost to improve the customer experience. And at a governmental level, regulation is being developed and rolled out (like the GDPR) to protect users’ data across the board. 

What they don’t use

Social media platforms and other apps do not have automatic access to your data (or microphone) upon download—you must explicitly give them the green light by accepting the terms and conditions—and they do not sell your data directly to advertising companies. Instead, advertisers pay them to conveniently match ads with the right users, a virtual win-win-win. Google and other key players operate the same way, amassing insights and acting as a very efficient middleman.

And what about our phone listening in? The truth is that many smart devices do have the ability to listen to you at all times, but don’t, due to the sheer amount of data it would consume to do so. Instead, most audio-recording technologies are only activated using a trigger word—in Google’s case, “Hey Google” or “Ok Google.” The problem is that different apps have different trigger words, and we aren’t aware of what they are. So whether your phone is listening or not all depends on which apps you use and the permissions you’ve given them.

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Embrace change and ride the tech wave

Your devices and their corresponding apps can and do use your data to improve your experience (and of course, to make money), but only when your settings allow for it. In some cases, you yield your data upon accepting the app’s terms and conditions, and in other cases, it’s a matter of reviewing your privacy settings. In any case, data collection and analysis tends to do more good than harm, helping to give you the most efficient and tailored digital experience possible.

The bigger picture here is that this leg of technology is making our lives better and more convenient, and while a dose of caution is healthy, we must embrace change in order to drive innovation and usher in the thrilling benefits of the digital world.


Hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, Meagan Gardner has been working in content creation and editing for the past four years. She now proudly serves as Rewire Mag’s Editor-in-Chief, and works hard to ensure its content inspires current and future HST students to drive change in the new world of work. Link up with her here.