Are Our Devices Listening To Us?


Richa Sharma, Staff Writer

Many people have stories about seeing an advertisement for a certain product on social media after having a conversation about it. This poses the intriguing question: are our devices listening to us, or are these just coincidences? As Bree Fowler writes in her article, “Is Your Smartphone Secretly Listening to You,” for Consumer Reports, “According to a nationally representative phone survey of 1,006 U.S. adults conducted by Consumer Reports in May 2019, 43 percent of Americans who own a smartphone believe their phone is recording conversations without their permission.” After extensive research, one can determine that the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. 

Numerous technology companies have reportedly admitted to recording interactions with the voice-activated features of their devices, whereas others have denied this possibility. According to Casey Bond from the HuffPost, Apple admitted that interactions with Siri are recorded, and third-party contractors have access to these recordings. In addition, devices such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa record interactions for the purpose of better understanding human speech patterns. After interviewing Dr. Peter Henway, the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, Sam Nichols from Vice explains that a smartphone must be “triggered” in order to record interactions. For example, simply saying “Hey Siri” triggers your phone to begin recording the interaction. Dr. Henway then goes on to explain that non-triggered recordings are only processed within your iPhone and not sent to Apple. However, third party contractors such as social media apps have access to this non-triggered data. 

Why is this information important to us? It is plausible that these recordings can be manipulated and used against someone. Devices can be accidentally triggered during any given moment, therefore making it a possibility for people to give away private information without knowing, such as addresses, phone numbers, etc. However, there are precautions one can take in order to prevent these issues. For example, disabling the “Hey Siri” function on an Apple device prevents the possibility of triggering recordings that may be sent to Apple. Additionally, Amazon’s Alexa allows you to access recorded interactions and delete them. In the article “Of Course Your Phone is Listening to You,” Forbes author Nathan Pettijohn mentions disabling your smartphone’s microphone, and removing permissions of third party apps. As global citizens, our privacy is being abused by companies interested in bettering their products.  As people entitled to their freedom, we are willfully exchanging our privacy for the consumerist impulses of our society.