Your phone is listening often and it's learning a lot about you

Posted at 10:02 PM, Feb 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 00:02:28-05

SALT LAKE CITY — It's fair to say we rely on our smartphones each and every day to make phone calls, send messages, and pay for things.

But what about when we're not using it?

We figured we'd do an experiment to see how our phones are tracking us using text, geolocation, and voice data.

To do it we gathered a few FOX 13 News coworkers - Melissa Youngberg, Darienne DeBrule, and Rylan Kellum - before assigning them some keywords.

Melissa's was baby stroller, Darienne's was trampoline, and Rylan's was houseplant.

Melissa was tasked with Googling her keyword to see if it comes up on any of her social media feeds based on searching with words alone.

Darienne was told to say her keyword in conversations, on the phone, or just around her phone when it's out on the table to see if this prompted any social media ads.

Rylan was assigned the task of going to stores to window shop for his keyword, but not to say it or search for it online.

While those three worked on our experiment, FOX 13 News spoke with Jeff Phillips, who leads the Data Science Program at the University of Utah.

We wanted to find out when our phones are most likely listening to us.

Phillips said, "If you’re talking to someone on the phone then it's taking in all the audio data and it’s transmitting that. It could also be listening in the background."

But the U of U professor also said the chances of using what you're saying in the background are slim for a very good reason.

"Voice data is much harder to collect than data from text," said Phillips.

He went on to say this is because machine learning has to figure out what you're saying, whereas typed text is already clear and easy for a computer to understand and process.

Phillips said, "If they were listening and you were saying it over and over again, even though it might be a bit of a noisier signal, they would eventually get confidence that a person is really interested in something and they should start advertising to them."

These days companies tend to treat data like currency and a good example of that is Google.

The tech giant went through great lengths to acquire lots of data and Phillips said this allows Google to learn how to personalize ads better.

One of those great lengths was Google 411, a free voice recognition search engine launched in 2007.

It was shut down in 2007 and while Google lost a lot of money running this service it did get something valuable in return.

"They spent a lot of money to buy this data and then they had the best algorithms for processing this and it allowed them to build their home assistant apps", said the U of U professor.

This begs the question, what else are companies gaining from your data, and is what they're doing legal?

Elaina Maragakis, a Lawyer who specializes in Data Privacy and Cybersecurity at Ray Quinney & Nebeker, gave us some insight.

"One of the things you have to wonder is are smartphones listening and if they are what are they listening for? Generally, if a company obtains a consumer’s consent to gather and use their data then it’s usually permissible," said Maragakis.

She went on to say the more difficult question to answer is how did a company get your consent and what did you agree to at the time.

For example, you may be fine with things like Facebook and Twitter gathering your data to personalize your ads but Maragakis said if they send that data to a third party for use, that may be beyond the scope of what you consented to.

The Utah lawyer recommends taking a minute to actually read through what you're consenting to before clicking accept to any data privacy terms.

Also, if an app is asking for permission to access your camera, microphone, or location when it shouldn't, Maragakis said that's an immediate red flag.

"The example that you hear a lot about is if you’re using a flashlight app and they want to use the microphone you may just want to ask yourself why they need to use the microphone," said Maragakis.

When we checked back in with Melissa, Darienne, and Rylan here's what we found.

"Nothing really came up until I did searches on Facebook. When I did that, I was bombarded with suggestions on Facebook Marketplace, other baby items, but other than that I wasn’t getting anything across the rest of my social media platforms," said Youngberg.

As for DeBrule, she said, "When I was on Instagram I started to see ads for trampolines, Even when I was shopping on some of my favorite websites I started seeing trampoline ads and that’s not something I would normally see."

Meanwhile, Kellum said he went to Home Depot and a few other different gardening stores, and he said nothing showed up for the first day or so, but then eventually things started showing up on his social media feeds.

So there you have it, targeted ads made their way to all three of our experiment participants regardless of whether they used text, voice, or geolocation to trigger them.

If this has you wanting a bit more privacy, there is a way to restrict microphone access for apps.

"If you want to disable your microphone settings, so that isn’t something that’s available to your smartphone, I think those are just smart things to check on occasion," said Maragakis.

To restrict access for apps on an iPhone go to Settings -> Privacy -> Microphone and then turn off any apps that you don't want to be able to use the microphone.

On an Android phone, go to Settings -> Privacy -> App Permissions -> Microphone and then turn off any apps that you don't want to give microphone access to.

If you want to take a video or send an audio message in any of those apps then you will need to grant them microphone access once again.