Is Someone's Device Listening In? By Makenzie Stalker

People all over the world have come to know and love their devices. However, those devices evolve, and mysterious things can happen, such as the Samsung setting aflame. Events such as this can lead to conspiracy theories worldwide. One theory, however, may not be a far stretch from the truth. People have done the research. People have stated their opinions. But in the end, it is concluded that someone’s device is in fact listening in.

Social media apps need data to establish who would be intrigued by certain ads in order to benefit both the company and the advertisers. When someone is talking next to their phone, there are “triggers” for certain apps that can begin to record a snippet of someone’s conversation, and what might lead to a trigger has yet to be defined.

According to Dr. Peter Henway, “Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.” *

There are countless records of this happening, mostly when it comes to “coincidental ads”. Once that snippet is recorded, companies will then give ads to that person based on what was just spoken, which may have been about clothing or food. Companies manage to do such things by accessing someone’s microphone once they give them that option.

Junior Katie Orillion has experienced these coincidental ads firsthand. “Last year my mom said that I could redo my room, so I was often talking about like new bedding and stuff. Ads started popping up all over my amazon for sheets and shelves and stuff.”

Sometimes someone can unintentionally set off the recording. When it comes to “Hey Siri”, IOS might think someone is asking Siri for something, when they are simply having a normal discussion. Even before someone says those words, Siri needs to know when to chime in. It does so by recording and listening. Either way, that accidental clip can be sent and reviewed for the benefit of a company.

According to Komando.com, “Your smartphone is similar to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home -- they listen for "wake" words like "Hey Siri" and "Okay Google" all the time. These wake words are required for your smartphone to actually start recording.”

It’s not just devices such as laptops and phones, home devices such as Alexa and Google Home can record someone’s conversation.

Katie Orillion said, “I think it listens for ‘Alexa’, as it listens for names of products that it can suggest you.”

However, the reasoning for home devices recording is different. When someone says, “Hey Alexa”, Alexa begins to record. When that record is sent, it is used to improve that device. Especially with people who have thick accents, recording can help the company understand how to fix that device, so a person won’t have to struggle speaking a clear sentence. In the end though, people are listening in.

But fear not, for data is not ever sold off to various advocates. Companies will never hand their data to advertisers, they must put faith in that association to give their ads to people who are truly interested, and those companies manage to do that through someone’s data that they’ve collected. No data is ever shared through those distributions.

As Dr. Peter Henway put it, “Rather than saying here’s a list of people who followed your demographic, they say Why don’t you give me some money, and I’ll make that demographic or those who are interested in this will see it. If they let that information out into the wild, they’ll lose that exclusive access to it, so they’re going to try to keep it as secret as possible.” *

Basically, the advertisers need to have trust in the company. The company gets the money and uses their data to advertise the advocate’s ads. Again, no data is distributed.

Even so, social media companies don’t need someone’s recorded data to begin with; they already know so much about an individual. If they recorded someone’s data all the time, all the data would be too expensive to gather and analyze. Not only that, but people’s phone bills would skyrocket with all that data. So, what a person looks up and what they post are a few factors that companies consider when giving them ads. It’s all about making predictions about what ads might suit them the most. Someone's location is even tracked, so if someone goes to Starbucks, they’ll most likely get ads for it!

Former Facebook operations manager Sandy Parakilas explained this, “They know a tremendous amount about you and that enables them to make guesses about what to advertise to you that can be uncannily accurate” *

However, that doesn’t mean companies will never give their data to people. In the case of higher ups such as the CIA and government, companies must give them someone’s data. The government could easily use someone’s data against them; if someone is on their list of course. This list could hold escapees or hackers. They wouldn’t go after someone who’s a normal citizen, because they won’t pose a threat to society.

Freshman Angel Wade exclaimed, "If you’re wanted for something, they can track you in seconds.”

People should simply abide by the rules and knowing this about their government could make individuals either paranoid or neutral.

When Freshman Eliza Noell was asked if this topic worried her, she responded, “Nope. I seriously doubt the government is out to get a 15-year-old freshman looking at her computer all day at homework or social media.”

Does that mean there’s no threat? Of course not. Hackers could easily hack into someone’s device and listen in. This could cause all sorts of problems.

Eliza Noell continued, “I do have more reason to be worried about smaller sale hackers, because my webcam/recording poses a much more serious threat to me if, say someone wanted to find out where I lived or how old I was etc. There’s also my right to privacy risked being broken, which anyone can find scary. No one wants to fully believe they are alone, when in reality, someone can hear/see them.”

When this thought comes to mind, people tend to cover up their laptop cameras to give them relief, but don’t forget that they can still listen in.

Technology is constantly changing; for good or for worse. But even so, people have started to depend on these machines, and others can utilize it for their advantage. Companies, hackers, or even the government have mysterious ways of listening in for their benefit.

Don’t worry though, surely if companies decline listening in, they should be accurate, right?

* Nichols, Sam. “Your Phone Is Listening and It's Not Paranoia.” Vice, 4 June 2018, www.vice.com/en_au/article/wjbzzy/your-phone-is-listening-and-its-not-paranoia.

* Komando. “You're Not Paranoid, Your Phone Really IS Listening to EVERYTHING You Say.” The Kim Komando Show, 11 July 2019, www.komando.com/happening-now/464613/youre-not-paranoid-your-phone-really-is-listening-to-everything-you-say.

* CBS News. “Are Smartphones Listening and Targeting Us with Ads?” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 27 Feb. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/phone-listening-facebook-google-ads/.