Trying to keep your privacy in the digital age

Trying to keep your privacy in the digital age
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By Kim Komando, Signal Contributing Writer

The scene plays out like a thriller: You pull out your phone, and you see an ad for AirPods.

“Wait a minute,” you think. “Didn’t I just have a conversation about AirPods with my friend? Is my phone … listening to me?”

Why, yes, it probably is. When you use your default settings, everything you say may be recorded through your device’s onboard microphone. Our phones routinely collect our voice data, store it in a distant server, and use it for marketing purposes. 

Before you ask, yes, it’s perfectly legal, and developers claim not to abuse this practice. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it; many people are startled to see ads for things they have only spoken about, not search for on their browsers. Luckily, there are ways to stop your devices from eavesdropping on you. 

Whispering (marketing) campaigns

When you think about it, smartphones are equipped with an arsenal of monitoring equipment: multiple microphones and cameras are designed to absorb audio and video. While these tools may be useful for creating media, they are also a goldmine for advertisers.

In mid-2018, a reporter for Vice experimented to see just how closely smartphones listen to our conversations. To test his phone, the journalist spoke pre-selected phrases twice a day for five days in a row. Meanwhile, he monitored his Facebook feed to see if any changes occurred.

Sure enough, the changes seemed to arrive overnight. One of his test phrases involved going “back to university,” and by the next morning, the reporter saw ads for summer courses. He then changed up his test phrase to “cheap shirts,” and quickly saw advertisements for low-cost apparel on his Facebook feed.

This report triggered a wave of studies on the surveillance effects of social media platforms.

 While not every study provided clear answers, a general sense of agreement on the matter was reached due to hints in the User Agreements of several apps and social media platforms. 

These user agreements explicitly state recorded audio may be used for targeted advertising purposes. Interestingly, such practices aren’t against the law. This action allows tech companies to push the privacy boundaries even further to encourage us to buy things we don’t need.

What can I do about
being spied on

If you’re not comfortable with targeted ads, there are ways to mitigate your smartphone’s spy power. That said, you may lose access to some handy features like wake words and voice assistants, so you’ll have to decide whether these features are worth sacrificing your privacy.

The biggest vulnerability comes from the “always-on” feature of most voice assistants. To pick up wake words like “Hey Siri,” the mic needs to remain on at all times – which means your phone is always listening.

The best place to start taking your privacy back is by turning off the “always-on” microphone features on your handset.

Disable mic access for apps

Disabling the always-on microphone features from your phone isn’t enough for some apps like Facebook. The social site makes exceptions to the rule and will keep on listening unless you make the change.

This is just one of the many privacy settings you really should be using if you have a Facebook account. Tap or click for more ways to lock down your profile.

For information on Kim Komando on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks, visit her at 

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