Pinterest Stumbleupon Whatsapp
Ads by Google

More and more people are becoming concerned that their smartphone microphones are being used for more than just calls. We recently investigated this phenomenon Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Little green android guy with an ear horn? or a glass against the wall? or looking over your shoulder as you watch TV? Read More  and discovered that it’s possible for apps to use voice data, detected via a device microphone, and display related content on your phone.

The problem is, we didn’t quite appreciate the extent of it.

Comments on our previous article reveal that not only have people noticed this, they’re not particularly happy about it either. So, to find out just how big the problem is, we widened the net and checked a few other places where the same topic has been discussed.

Despite our high expectations, we were still surprised by what we found.

The Front Page of the Internet

After checking through a disturbing list of stories in our own article, I headed over to Reddit (learn more about Reddit The Awesome Guide To Reddit The Awesome Guide To Reddit Wonder how your friends always find cool stuff on the Internet before you? They're probably using Reddit, the self-proclaimed "front page of the Internet". Read More ) to see if any of the regulars there had noticed anything.

Ads by Google

Of course they had.

I know this is farfetched, but I was talking to my family about books and we mentioned the book “the giver” and had a quick chat about it. A few minutes later I was on the Google play store and the giver was on the “recommended for you” subheading. I’ve never downloaded an eBook and hardly read books in general! What could be the reason for this?

This thread was started by portuguesesteel with the above observation, with several worrying replies.

My wife tells [my son] to go put some pants on because she doesn’t want to see his “bulges”. I … immediately think of the old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd [sic] as the Czechoslovakian Brothers and start talking like they did in the skit. My boys (14, 12, & 8) have no clue what I’m talking about, so I reach over to the end table grab my tablet and launch the Youtube app. I tapped the hour glass icon to search, and the first “suggested” video for me was “SNL’s Two Wild and Crazy Guys”.

I think we can all agree that this is a pretty huge coincidence.

muo-security-smartphone-listening2-reddit

For something just as obscure, but more mundane, take a look at stardustdriveinTN’s post.

In the car today, wife and I saw some barns off the highway and I mentioned to her that I saw some article on how there was a specific reason why barns were red, but couldn’t remember… She picks up her phone and starts to look it up. She types in “why” in the Google search bar and the first item that pops up is “why are barns red.” She has not looked this up previously at all since it was an article I read awhile back not using our phones.

Those three are concerning enough. This being the internet, of course, it gets worse…

New York City Radio

The website of New York’s public radio station, WNYC.org, features a news story about apps “eavesdropping” on smartphone users to serve adverts and searches based on overheard conversations.

muo-security-smartphone-listening2-wnyc

One commenter names mz was literally creeped out after watching a show about lice on Hulu, to find that the ads on their phone were literally infested.

Watched a tv show episode about lice with my roommate and her boyfriend. It was streamed on hulu through the roku and not in any way attached to my iPhone. We started talking about super lice and how creepy it was. The next day I was scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I realized all the ads had changed to ads for superlice remedies. ??? I don’t have children or lice or a search history even remotely connected to anything which would prompt this.

Check out their podcast via the link above for more.

Our Own Findings

However, the stories that you, our readers, told us about their smartphones “coincidentally” displaying information directly related to what you have been telling us, are even more concerning.

We’ll start with Steve Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Little green android guy with an ear horn? or a glass against the wall? or looking over your shoulder as you watch TV? Read More :

Sitting at an airport last week I was chatting to a friend and was asked where I lived. I responded with my hometown of Kingsley…….my phone was in the top pocket of my shirt and instantly I got a text message alert.

All it was was a link with the title “Message for Kingsley” intrigued I clicked on the link and got directed to an ad for Aldi supermarket that had just opened in a suburb close to Kingsley…

Meanwhile, Ann noticed Facebook and Instagram serving ads Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Little green android guy with an ear horn? or a glass against the wall? or looking over your shoulder as you watch TV? Read More based on her conversations.

Yesterday I was talking with my mother about Expedia and the next time i turned on my phone and checked Instagram an Expedia ad came up.

The day prior I mentioned to my coworker I was looking into getting a new car and then opened my phone and a car ad appeared on my Facebook feed

Today I was on the phone with my sister about where should could purchase a new computer and I mentioned BestBuy, immediately after I hung up a best buy ad appears on my Facebook feed.

Similarly, Raquel was concerned with Shutterfly Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Little green android guy with an ear horn? or a glass against the wall? or looking over your shoulder as you watch TV? Read More .

I was at a friends house and she showed me a shutterfly calendar. I never used or looked up shutterfly but for the next several days all I got in my phone was shutter fly ads!

Finally, here’s Stephanie Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Is Your Smartphone Listening to You, or Is It Just Coincidence? Little green android guy with an ear horn? or a glass against the wall? or looking over your shoulder as you watch TV? Read More , who sums things up pretty well.

…we will be talking to each other about something and one of us will say, “let’s Google it!” So, I start typing and within 2 or 3 letters, the first thing in the drop-down list is the topic we were discussing! We have jokingly said that Google has mics in our home or something and maybe all along, it was our phones? I expect to see related ads when I have purposely been looking for a product on the internet. It doesn’t surprise me when after I have been shopping for shoes on Amazon, that later on all other sites, I see ads for the shoes I was looking for.

I think we can discount coincidence, don’t you?

Have You Spotted Something Similar?

Clearly, something is amiss here. For so many people to have noticed supposed coincidences seems like one coincidence too far. To date, Google has “categorically” rejected any accusations, while Facebook and Apple have said little.

Perhaps these accounts, presented together, will prompt a rethink. In the meantime, we’re at their mercy. Short of disabling mobile data How to Prevent Any App from Using Mobile Data on Android How to Prevent Any App from Using Mobile Data on Android Want to limit which apps are connecting to the Internet on your smartphone or tablet? That's easy. Let us show you how. Read More and Wi-Fi (useful to save battery 5 Advanced Ways to Improve Battery Life on Android 5 Advanced Ways to Improve Battery Life on Android If you've got a rooted Android device (or you're willing to root it), and you want better battery life, we can help you out. Read More ), our options are limited. Unlike a desktop computer, you can’t disable or disconnect the microphone Your Computer’s Microphone is a Privacy Concern – Here’s Why Your Computer’s Microphone is a Privacy Concern – Here’s Why What if your privacy was being invaded without your knowledge? There are many reasons why you should disable or cover your webcam, but what risk does your computer's built-in microphone pose? Read More on a telephone!

What do you think? Is this a useful “feature”? Would you prefer to have it completely removed, or would you at least expect to have the option of opting out? Tell us what you think in the comments box.

Image Credits:Businessman eavesdropping by Palto via Shutterstock

  1. Des
    September 18, 2016 at 7:33 am

    You bet you can do something about, if you are on Android that is; install the Netguard app. By doing so you you can selectively enable/disable which apps and OS services may access the internet/remote servers. The best part, this app does NOT require root.

    • Christian Cawley
      September 18, 2016 at 6:55 pm

      Have you had success with this, Des, as a solution to the "eavesdropping ads"?

  2. Chad Edwards
    July 23, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I knew google was recording clips of me speaking a while back, however i never realised it was to this extent! I found this out via Unbox Theripy where he found that the Okay Google mechanic was actually not just recording him saying the phrase but actuall conversations between him and friends on the phone itslef!

    When I whent to my google account i found the exact same thing! Minuet long audio clips of me and mates talking either via phone or irl, and sometimes short clips of nothing but russeling, this could be google recording audio only to find my phone was in my pocket.

    To know this mic recording gos einto this much depth i find myself imediatly dissallowing google acess to the mic, or any apps that souldnt need mic access.

    By the way the video is called: Unbox Therapy - Google Has Been Recording Your Voice

  3. Chad Edwards
    July 23, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    I watched you tutube vidoe the other ay from UnboxTherepy and it turns out Google was recording actual phone calls of his! All because of the Okay Google Feature!

    I find this deeply scary and insulting to have my privacy brached this way after i whent to the same page he had loaded in his google account to realise google records me everytime i apparently say okay google, yet there were minuet long clips of me in convos with mates and on phone calls.

    ill link the video here to see for yourself!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtmR9L0ITlM

    • Christian Cawley
      September 18, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Vee
    July 5, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    A couple months back a friend of mine was telling me about egg donations. And a day later I was getting ads to egg donor companies left right and center.

    • Christian Cawley
      September 18, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      That's really creepy. Thanks, Vee.

  5. bob
    July 5, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    and this is why i have less than half a dozen apps on my phone, most of which denote minimal permissions needed.

    • Christian Cawley
      September 18, 2016 at 7:00 pm

      Good tactic, Bob. Care to share your minimal app selection?

  6. Thomas Hermes
    July 5, 2016 at 2:02 am

    Of course we'd like to be able to opt out butwe also need to know 100% that we are actually being offered that option

  7. Dhaval Shah
    July 4, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Guys I expect solutions from MUO Team, these speculation business is below your level. Lets find a practical solutions to this problem, because there is limit less potential to exploit us, regardless its current status. Please give solution and not feed paranoia.

    • Christian Cawley
      July 4, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      Dhaval: there are currently no solutions. As explained, there is no way to disable the mic, other than restrict apps from accessing it.

      We're not intending to feed paranoia; the aim of this post is to illustrate that the problem is widespread, with the intention of bringing it to the attention of those that can speak about it.

      Stay tuned.

    • fcd76218
      July 6, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      @Dhaval Shah:
      There is a solution but very few, if any, will take it. Replace your smartphone with a dumb flip phone. Of course then you won't be able to access the Internet, take pictures or play Candy Crush. :-)

    • Des
      September 18, 2016 at 7:44 am

      There is a solution; block internet access to your microphone. See my previous posts on the Netguard app or similar apps for Android.

  8. Daniel
    July 3, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Playing devil's advocate here but, although it is POSSIBLE that apps are listening to us, all those cases can be explained otherwise. Given the number of telemetry they take (if you have a Google account and an Android device, go to myactivity.google.com, it's kind of freaky) they could have gotten all this information from previous searches and whatnot. Actually, I would go so far as to say that with the amount of information our smartphones send Google and Apple, they don't even NEED to listen to us.

    • Cr
      July 4, 2016 at 2:18 am

      Yes i had already noticed this behavior. It is easy enough to test. Pick a subject that is not a current event and something you have never searched or spoken about. Clearly say the word several times near your phone. The google app will indeed offer the topic to you a search auto-comple suggestion list (at or near the top of the list). Don't start your first typed character with the test word. Type "what is" or "how to"" and Google will give ylu s suggestion with your test word.

  9. Jeffrey Goines
    July 2, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    Any idea which apps or OS are doing the eavesdropping?

    • Christian Cawley
      July 3, 2016 at 7:37 am

      Would seem to be Android and iOS, with Facebook and Google being the prime candidates.

    • Des
      September 18, 2016 at 7:42 am

      All of them when you have an internet connection.

      My solution to this fix, and I apologise to the editors of this website in-advance for my repetition (honestly just an enthusiastic user), is to simply install the Netguard app (Android only).

      Here was my example; I was finding that everytime I made a call to a new business that was not in my local contacts I'd find it was immediately resolving to the business details. There was no other way for this to happen other than the stock Android dialler sending the phone number I had called to a remote google search. Freaking outrageous from my perspective! Well, after installing Netguard I was soon able to stamp out that bad behaviour and without having to root my phone.

      Unfortunately after looking into the implementation of Netguard I believe this clever solution will never be available to iOS. Sorry apple guys :(

  10. winters
    July 1, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    I have noticed this a while ago and have my own stories about it, but telling them might be redundant in this article.

    I think the bigger problem is not that we're being spied on (though it is a big one), but the fact that we're being lied about it.

    Any app that asks permissions for mic, camera, etc will tell you it has to do functionality, like voice commands to control the app or whatever. Its clear it can also be used for other things they might not disclose. What i don't understand is why people read explanations and policies posted by companies and just believe them, like companies have never lied before.

  11. fcd76218
    July 1, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    As Mr. Auric Goldfinger, the title villain in the Goldfinger movie was fond of saying, "Once is happenstance, Twice is coincidence, Three times is enemy action".

    How many times do we have to be hit on the head with a 2x4 before we accept the fact that everybody is spying on us in any way they can. What until recently was ascribed to the paranoia of the tin foil hat set, has become a common occurrence.

    • Christian Cawley
      July 2, 2016 at 4:02 pm

      Collecting evidence for this can be difficult. We're on the right track, I fancy.

  12. yassine
    July 1, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Privacy became a vey big issue espetially now when all big tech companies(Google, Microsoft, Apple...) are spying on us
    There is not that much that we can do but we can switch to linux tails on the desktop and to a blackberry

    • Des
      September 18, 2016 at 7:34 am

      Lots you can do. See my comment about the Netguard app.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *