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Serious Question: Is My Device Listening to Me?

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The UK is truly a digitised nation. In 2022, Statista figures showed that only 13% of people in the UK didn’t own any smart home devices. And 98% of the UK population has a mobile phone. All this proves we have devices everywhere: in our pockets, in our homes, and in our workplace. However, many devices work by constantly recording the world around them. And for many of us, that is unsettling.

For instance, you might be chatting to a friend about something, then pop online on your phone. All the adverts on your browser are about that thing you were just chatting about. It can be weirdly unsettling when you speak about something and an advert for it appears 10 minutes later.

The UK public has realised something is afoot. A survey in 2021 found that 66% were aware of their phones listening to them.

But why are phones listening? Is it a cause for concern? And what can you do to stop your device from quietly listening to you? 

Why is my device listening?

The main way your smart devices are listening is for their ‘wake words’ like ‘Hey Siri’ and ‘Alexa’. This helps them deliver functionality to you, kicking into action when needed. The likes of Siri will also send snippets of your conversations to Apple to help improve the service.

The other reason is for marketing purposes. Search engines and websites track your browser history and cookies to serve up more tailored adverts while you use the internet. They do this because more well-targeted ads are more likely to result in a sale. Some devices can also listen out for and use your voice to target these adverts. 

Should I be worried?

Our phones don’t record us by mistake or illegally. If you have signed a user agreement with a tech company like Apple or Google, you will almost certainly have let them record you.

Now, whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on a few factors. Do you use these services? If not, then their recording could be an issue. Do you care about personalised ads? If not, then do you care about providing that data? And do you like sharing personal data with third parties in general? The eeriness of personalised content could be a factor here.

What can I do to improve my privacy?

If you don’t want your device to record you, there are several things you can do. First, you can add another layer of protection by using a virtual private network that will disguise your data.  But wait, are VPNs legal in the UK? Well, thankfully, they are. And as a result, they can be used to protect against things like location tracking and data monitoring. 

Next, visit the relevant settings in your device and turn off all settings related to your phone listening in. It can take a few minutes, but this is the best way to stop your phone from eavesdropping.

Do you care about phones listening in on your conversations? Were you aware of the practice to begin with?

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