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Is your phone really ’listening’ to your conversations? It isn’t but this is what to do about it

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Jun 23, 2021


Have you ever spoken about something then, a few hours later, you get an ad for it on Facebook or YouTube? Yes, it is a bit creepy but no, your phone is not ’listening’ to you. It’s a little bit of artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning, a little bit of tracking, virtual assistants and, of course, the good ol’ Google search.

AI Machine Learning? Like Terminator?

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Welcome to the 21st century, where most of our lives are governed by our artificial intelligence (AI) overlords. Okay, it’s not as creepy and sci-fi as I am making it sound. But there are several machine-learning techniques in AI that gives systems the ability to filter and analyse your data. For instance, this is how the social media algorithms determine what to show you on your Facebook or Instagram feeds. It ’learns’ what you like and dislike, through your interactions (or lack thereof) with a post.

Using the interactions and data, you are then given targeted ads. For example, if you like a lot of cat pictures and react to the videos, you will get an ad appealing to your cat-loving heart.

What about tracking?

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When you go on a website or download a new app, you are sending out more information that you think. We grant them permissions without looking through them and we click “Accept all cookies” to get that annoying pop-up out of the way.

First-party cookies allow websites to remember your actions, for instance your login details. Third-party cookies are created by domains that are outside the site you’re visiting. The third party in this case might be a marketing company that is in a partnership with the first-party website or app.

The first party website will host the marketer’s ads and grant it access to data it collects from you. “But isn’t that illegal?” Well, it’s not because you clicked on “Accept all cookies”, remember?

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There are several companies that created a profile of sorts about you – what you like, what you don’t like, what products you use, what you probably will use in future, that you recently visited a site about where to get last-minute gifts because you forgot their birthday, again…

Let’s not forget that your location is probably on, so you will get ads based on what is closest to you in current time. There is no point in showing you ads in a Johannesburg store if you live in Cape Town, right?

With all this information, algorithms improve and advertisers can recommend products that will not “maybe” appeal to you but “definitely” appeal to you.

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It’s not just Google searches?

While it does play a part, it’s not the only part. We have all seen it. It takes merely one search and suddenly your YouTube has ads about it. Chill, I just want to watch videos…

Remember the “profile” mentioned earlier? Ad recommendations are also based on the personal details you gave the site or app, whether it is an email address, gender, location or devices you access the platform on.

It could also be from pages or groups you have joined or “liked” on the platform and the interactions that are made on there.

In a way, it also involves others. That said, data can be collected from your friends and family members who are using the same platforms, websites and apps as you.

Let’s not forget virtual assistants. When you’re using a virtual assistant, you agreed to the terms and conditions of the service provider the moment you pressed “I accept”. Since you’ve given your consent, it’s legal to track your conversations with Google Assistant, Siri or Alexa for marketing purposes.

What can I do about it?

For starters, if possible, don’t willy-nilly press “Accept all cookies”. It might seem like a lot but it is important to read through everything first before pressing accepting.

It will also help making use of a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN hides your IP address and encrypts traffic. This improves your privacy.

Although if you are creeped out about the idea of your phone “listening” to you, you can disable it.

How to turn off your microphone on iPhone and Android devices:

Disable “Hey Siri” on iOS:

– Go to Settings > Siri & Search.

– Toggle off Listen for “Hey Siri”. Press Side Button for Siri and Allow Siri When Locked.

– Tap on Turn Off Siri in the pop-up.

Disable “Ok Google” on Android

Go to Settings.

Select Google > Account Services > Search, Assistant & Voice > Voice.

Select Voice Match and toggle off Hey Google.


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