More and more people are becoming concerned that their smartphone microphones are being used for more than just calls. We recently investigated this phenomenon 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) to see if any of the regulars there had noticed anything.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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, 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 and Wi-Fi (useful to save battery), our options are limited. Unlike a desktop computer, you can’t disable or disconnect the microphone 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