Are our phones listening to us?

Hyper-specific ads on social media apps confuse phone users

Instagram and Facebook users reportedly see advertisements about topics they discuss.

The idea that everyone with an electronic device is under surveillance has circled mainstream society since George Orwell's 1984. Though Orwell's novel is fiction, hyper-tailored social media ads suggest our phones may be listening to us almost as much as Big Brother.

One of the most prominent modern-day conspiracy theories is that our smartphones listen to everything we say. An oft-piece of evidence is targeted ads on apps like Instagram or Facebook. Many believe their phones analyze recordings of recent conversations to show them advertisements of items or subjects they’ve discussed.

In my daily life, I try to take reasonable precautions to protect how much information about me is available online.

I cover my laptop's webcam, turn off my phone's location services, and have fairly strict security settings for my social media. I could be doing more to protect my privacy, but I thought I'd taken enough measures to keep information like what I'm saying or where I am private.

You can imagine how unsettled I was when I returned home from a friend's house and saw that, after we had a random conversation about a girl we knew who loved horses, my Instagram and Facebook apps both showed me ads for horse therapy in Kingston.

Not only had these apps picked up on a conversation subject that had absolutely zero trace across my social networks or search history, these apps were also able to pinpoint where I was despite my location services being shut off.

Looking into the cause of these eerily specific advertisements yields uncertain results.

Facebook doesn’t officially use phone microphones for ads or stories. One study from Northeastern University suggests our phones aren't listening to us, but instead watch our movements through our phone cameras around the clock. A professor from the University of Toronto claims there's no evidence our phones are eavesdropping us at all.

One theory that could explain the existence of these ads comes from Dr. Peter Henway, a security consultant for an Australian cybersecurity firm. As reported by Vice, Henway says for our smartphones to actually pay attention to what we're saying, they need an established vocal trigger—like the commonly used "hey Siri" or "Alexa" triggers.

Henway claims by giving third-party apps like Facebook or Instagram access to our device's microphones, we could be susceptible to thousands of new triggers—all chosen at an app's discretion. A simple conversation about needing to pick something up from a store could be enough to activate these triggers, and allows apps to listen into our personal discussions.

Henway's theory makes a lot of sense when you consider how microphone access is completely legal in Canada, but is also one of the many stipulations we absentmindedly agree to when accepting an app’s terms and conditions.

In Instagram's most recent Terms of Use, which all of its users must agree to, it asks for permission to "[use] cutting-edge technologies that helps [Instagram] personalize, protect and improve our Service." While these "technologies" aren't specified, the terms also make users agree to sharing "information—including the information [Instagram] has about [users]" with all Facebook Companies.

With these terms in mind, it’s plausible Instagram picks up advertising-minded parts of our conversations, turns them into targeted ads and shares them with other social medias like Facebook.

While these results are technically inconclusive, I haven't encountered any conversation-specific ads since I rescinded Facebook and Instagram's microphone access on my phone.

Until more substantial evidence comes out about this conspiracy, we should try to protect our privacy by limiting the microphone access we grant apps, having an idea of the terms and conditions we agree to, and avoiding horse therapy at all costs.

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