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  • Writer's picturevikram vel

My phone is eavesdropping!

Are our mobile phones listening to us?

A couple days ago, something strange happened. A friend and I were discussing about our trip to India and the places we planned to visit. The very next day, I received pop-up ads on Facebook about cheap return flights to India and cheap hotels to stay. It seemed like just a spooky coincidence, but then everyone seems to have a story about their smartphone listening to them.

Lately I have had many incidents where, I tracked background apps in my android mobile, I would see Facebook services running in background and Mic would be turned on, or Instagram asking for Microphone permission!

So are our mobile phones spying on us? I have seen it is a hot topic right now and there has been much discussion about it.


Are they listening to our every conversation, creeping us out by serving us with ads for things straight after we’ve just discussed them with family and friends?

This question made me to research on the topic and I did a couple of debugging myself, and here is what I found.

According to many cyber-security experts and researchers from this area, the short answer is yes, but perhaps in a way that's not as diabolical as it sounds.

For our smartphones to actually pay attention and record your conversation, there needs to be a trigger word (Wake-word), for example "Hey Siri", "Ok, Google". So without these wake-words any data which we provide is only processed with in our own devices. But there are few third party apps like Shazam, Facebook - Still have access to these non-triggered data.

So are they using these data? It is really up-to them now!

From whatever debugging I did, from time to time snippets of our audio data do go back to server from apps like Facebook. But I was not successful in identifying what these triggers were, whether these were based on timings or location-based triggers. All the internal processing of the applications are in encrypted form so it makes it really hard in understanding what caused these triggers.

So this is what I decided to do as a small experiment, I tried to saying bunch of trigger phrases for a period of time,  example - "I am thinking of travelling to Bali next month", "I need to get some cheap shoes", " I would like to go for a good chinese restaurant".

I choose these phrases because, I will not even remotely search anything related to above mentioned stuffs and I tried to monitor my Facebook ads closely, to see if there are any changes.

The changes literally came over night!! Suddenly I was getting the best things to do in Bali, the cheapest packages for 3 days in Bali and Shoes from online shopping sites (believe me I have never searched or bought shoes from any of these online sites).

Though they were all good deals, the whole thing was eye-opening and utterly terrifying!



So yes, our phones are listening to us and anything we say around our phones could potentially be used against us. But it’s not something most people should be scared of. Because unless you’re a journalist, a lawyer, or have some kind of role with sensitive information, the access of your data is only really going to advertisers. If you’re like everyone else, living a really normal life, and talking to your friends about flying to India or Bali, then it’s really not that different to advertisers looking at your browsing history.

Still freaked out about these advertisements? check out this good article which I found on Internet Hygiene.

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