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Coincidence or is my phone listening to me?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / May 13, 2016 5:14 PM PDT


Hello, I don’t know if this has been discussed or not here before, but after having yet another uncanny and frankly “scary” event with ads being targeted at me for products or issues that I’m sure I had only spoken about -- and have NOT Googled/searched for them on my PC or phone, I decided to look a little closer to see if my phone could be “listening". I’m not the paranoid type, but what I found shook me. This recent BBC report pretty much explains it all: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35639549

Apparently it IS possible for an app on your phone to “listen” in via the microphone without you having any indication that it is doing so. Google’s response to this is pretty much that it has a “policy” against it. My take is that that’s just not good enough. There should be some trusted way (i.e., from Google) to limit the microphone to only the apps you choose -- e.g. for making phone or Skype calls. I know there are apps that claim to do just that in the Play store -- but how can I trust them? Especially if the app is free? They all need access to at least the one component you’re trying to protect (!). Is there a trusted way to control access to my microphone?

--Submitted by Paul
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Yes, It is All Possible
by Hforman / May 13, 2016 9:07 PM PDT

I used to work for a local government and, as part of my job, I had to send data to the cell network providers for analysis and return of information. For one of the providers, I had to submit the subpoena through a law enforcement website. While there, I got to look at all of the items on their menu as to what law enforcement can do (with a subpoena, back then). They can turn on your phone without alerting you and listen into conversations near your phone and can track you in any way (even if not a smart phone) and, of course, listen in on the phone and record. So, if you were a fan of the T.V. show, The Wire, all you saw there can be done.

From your description of the issue, it sounds like you have Google/Android. Correct? Google doesn't charge anything for Android. Google makes most of their money performing high-tech advertising and one of their claims-to-fame is directed advertising. It is not a secret that they keep tabs on you, the user, for these purposes. There is a Google web page where you can see some of the information they collect about you. A good place to start is to go to their home page and find the (tiny) link for their Terms of Service (TOS; "terms") and their privacy policy. Unknown to many, these documents are not very long and are not written in "legal-ese"; just plain English.

In the Terms, you will find what Google says that they can do with all of your information. This has changed and has been refined over time. The other document, the "Privacy Policy" tells you more about what Google says they actually do with information from you and about you. For example, several years ago, you could find on the Google website that the scan (electronically) or read (by real humans) every document that passes through them. Several years ago, it came out that Google admitted to scanning/reading every piece of GMAIL that passes through them. Yes, it caused quite a stir. The result was that their reading/scanning was moved right into the site's Privacy Policy. Of course, since then, there have been many changes. All this is supposed to be so that Google can direct meaningful advertising at you. Websites have to make money somehow to pay for all of the employees and hardware that they use to bring you the site. It is common sense that the "free" World Wide Web runs on advertising.

As far as using your microphone goes, I assume that it is mentioned in the privacy policy somewhere. However, I would more suspect APPs to be using the microphone more than the base Android. (You do need the microphone to make calls?). In the Apple world (iPhone) they warn you if an APP tries to use the microphone (or location, etc.) and you have an opportunity to think about why and make a decision to allow that or not. Unfortunately, I don't use Android so I can't help you there.

Law Enforcement can do what they want but they would probably find your conversations boring unless you were calling up to order drugs or mutter the words: "Destroy America" or something similar. Hopefully, someone can guide you to the settings for your phone and find a setting you can use. The other thing you can do is keep your phone in a case and in your pocket when you are not using it. And try to use well-known apps from a trusted app store.

Good luck.

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Not only listening!
by maltosk / May 21, 2016 3:02 AM PDT

Yes, it is indeed all Possible! Not only the bit about the microphone.
I use my computer when all alone, privately, and I don't talk, so no recording through the mic is possible. Yet when I reply or react to certain sites, like money making Binary Options Companies, I invariably get contacted immediately by several other such Phising, Scam, scum!
Where did they get my address from - they all say or lie, they respect our privacy an will never sell our address!
I don't think any mobile phone (especially a simple, no camera one like mine) can record or divine what I am thinking also!
I use Windows Vista Home Basic.
Oscar.

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Of COURSE Google scans gmail - they told you so
by E B / May 21, 2016 1:51 PM PDT

It always cracks me up when I see lines such as "Several years ago, it came out that Google admitted to scanning/reading every piece of GMAIL that passes through them."

Google didn't suddenly admit to scanning gmail - they announced it loudly the very first day gmail was available (through invitation only, back then), and it's always been part of the service, and they've been very open about all along. It's that several years ago, some people actually paid attention rather than ignoring the Terms of Service, and freaked out about it. Most of us just wondered how it is that it took them that long to notice.

Frankly, their search algorithms can be hilarious. From time to time I still get dog-related ads within gmail whenever a listserve I'm on for fans of a fantasy writer start talking about a major character - named Pug.

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OMG! Is there a way to turn off the microphone unless needed
by outofusernames / May 15, 2016 12:29 PM PDT

Thanks Paul and Lee Koo for the small and detailed news. I wonder now whether I should buy an Android for my budget, or the very expensive iPhone........

The most important question is
Is there a way to completely turn off the microphone when not needed?

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In the USA
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / May 15, 2016 12:53 PM PDT
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(NT) Everywhere
by bavant / May 20, 2016 7:29 PM PDT
In reply to: In the USA
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Everywhere
by bavant / May 20, 2016 7:31 PM PDT
In reply to: In the USA

What use is a phone without a mic?

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controlling an Android's phone-mic

Ironically, one might try to "Google" this question, to find an answer (I use e.g. DuckDuckGo instead).
It appears that with root access (a 'rooted' phone) one might be able to do this, at least for alternate OS like Cyanogen variants--depending on the hardware. But it doesn't look simple.

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Hmm
by lhatten / May 20, 2016 6:41 PM PDT

Hmm,
Well, for Android, you can look at the permissions you give each app. If you did not pay attention when you downloaded the app, you can go back & check them. It is tedious, but I just did it, and the only 2 apps that asked for permission to use the microphone were Firefox, and Smart Tools. I will be asking them why soon. If I don't like the answer, I will uninstall them. If you believe Google actually uses the permissions to keep apps from over stepping their permission to use things like the microphone, then all is good.

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I wouldn't doubt it
by Lynda99 / May 20, 2016 7:09 PM PDT

I recently became aware (personal experience) that Facebook is gathering the personal and marketing information from non-Facebook members who share an IP/Internet signal with a Facebook member.

It's 1984, and we've allowed it to happen.

I remember the day when the idea of actually carrying a tracking device everywhere with us would have been unthinkable.

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Yes it's possible. Yes it's about relevance and advertising.
by alanbs / May 20, 2016 9:37 PM PDT

Yes it's possible. Yes it's about relevance and advertising.
Do you have Google Now? Facebook? I'm sure you do, like most of us. (well I did get rid of FB) Some phone manufacturers have their own apps too.
If your phone is on, it's listening for you to talk to it. "Okay Google" will cause it to acknowledge that it is listening and awaiting your command or query. Google and Facebook make their millions to operate with by being "relevant" to you and by providing Directed Advertising. Facebook, however, never told anyone that the app once on will never shutoff unless you take action to stop it. They originally said phone feature access was to dial from your FB address book. Google was more forthcoming saying what it was doing. They also track your location for the same reasons, relevance and advertising.
They are both attempting to know as much about where and what you do, and are thinking (saying) about so that when you do open their applications they have a head start on providing you with relevant information, advertising and options displayed.
Your in a mall, you check FB, and the advertising is for stores in that mall or nearby. Not a coincidence. Same for Google distributed ads if you open a web page.
Big brother is watching, and he wants to sell you something. (NSA not withstanding)

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Wouldn't it be better if...

....we were being asked to pay for OS, apps etc? Because that's the crux of the issue here. "Directed advertising" so they can make their money.

Let's be specific, would we be better off paying $50 for the Android OS? How about an extra $10/year for FB? an extra $10 for Gmail? In return, ZERO tracking, ZERO directed advertising. I haven't done the math for the companies' revenue purposes, but you get the idea.

We have grown accustomed to free WWW, email, apps and the rest, but a) there's no such thing as "free", and b) many people think it would be crazy to pay the above amounts, but find nothing wrong in shelling out $5 a day on coffee or $50 on that steak at the fancy restaurant.

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Presactly!
by TreknologyNet / May 20, 2016 11:26 PM PDT

You've hit the nail on the head. The Internet was not pushed into people's homes for the way it is currently being used. It was pushed by advertising - you pay for the incoming data, and you pay for junk advertising as well! Can you imagine people paying for the junk that clutters their letter boxes?

That is why I will not pay extra for Cable TV or a streaming service. If I'm paying a premium price, I expect the content to be free of ads, and it isn't. Therefore, I'm willing to wait until I can buy that content on a physical disc.

Facebook is panicking. People aren't sharing enough personal information anymore. When I look at my FB feed, it's all political activism. In an effort to harvest personal information for advertising purposes, FB is now dragging up "memories" from two or three years ago, and encouraging users to re-share said memories.

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YES CABLE SUCKS !
by vincentpdll / May 21, 2016 3:58 PM PDT
In reply to: Presactly!

yes definitely cable should be free ! nowadays there is more freaking advertisements than programing and whatever show they show we already watched one day ago in the same channel !!!!! I mean why do they keep on repeating the same show for hours and a day later they rerun the same freaking show and the ads are no stopping at all I mean they are there during the show at the bottom of the screen and then they stop the show for more ads.
I think we the consumers need to come together and sue the cable companies I mean is either they are going to keep advertising and give the service for free or we keep on paying them for the service free of ads at all !!!! because we pay for the service a good chunk of money in monthly fees so it should be ad free and no reruns of the same f***ing show every week right ! ????

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On Cable TV
by Hforman / May 21, 2016 11:23 AM PDT

I don't know how many are old enough to remember this, but when cable TV first came out (I was living in NYC at the time), the channels on cable were about the same as on broadcast TV. The difference was that a) Cable was supposed to have a better "picture" than broadcast quality and, more important, b) cable was supposed to be advertisement/commercial-free. No ads! Today, we have a kazillion channels and we have advertising (even some during or embedded in the show).
I would love a system where we just pay for what we use and that not only applies to cable TV but also our phones and the Internet as well. The issue was, the Internet (originally DARPANet) was only available to the military/industrial complex along with the schools doing research for this. This came about in the 1970's so my first experience was setting up Internet access through a mainframe computer. So, the first desktop computers appealed only to the technically-oriented person. When the World Wide Web was added to the mix, computer use expanded. But, to help push it out, you couldn't nickle-and-dime everyone by charging for every service ("This search will cost you $0.20; please enter your credit card number..."). And I think that is why people think the Internet and its services are all free of charge. Websites cost a lot of money to put out there between employees, hardware, software, hosting/network costs. So, if people need to use the Internet, consumers will gravitate to FREE vs. having to pay any time and some will even tell you that they don't mind the advertising. And that is the way it is. If you want "free", you will get advertising. What a lot of us don't like are the "directed ads" where we have to give up our privacy just so the ads (which many of us don't look at anyway) are "meaningful". If I want to buy something, I can look it up myself; I don't need ads shoved in my face because I looked at something related online. All just my opinion here.

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But trust is trust is trust ...
by mijcar / May 22, 2016 10:46 AM PDT

The problem here is, paid or not paid, you are still trusting someone or some company. Revenue for corporations far exceeds anything we consumers can provide, even collectively (unless our collection can rival the size of a Walmart).

Consider: Turning off your GPS, for example, puts you more at risk than leaving it on, for two reasons:
1. You can't find your phone is it is lost/stolen (or its owner if he/she has been kidnapped).
2. Even if you are told your GPS is "off" or disabled, you have no way of verifying this. Thus, you put your property and family at risk without even being confident that you have actually achieved the privacy you traded off for.

We are in the age of technology. That means it, and all the problems inherent in it, are here to stay, in one form or another. You can even retreat to a Luddite commune in the hills of Wyoming and still not be confident that you are not being tracked and "data-tized" in some mainframe someone.

Institutional secrecy and the need to violate individual privacy, be it for reasons of security, profit or malevolence, is the reason we have whistle-blower laws, and will forever need to have them.

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Being At The Mercy Of Others: Is The Only Answer To Trust?
by time-to-spare / May 22, 2016 11:28 AM PDT

I would ask the founding fathers if we should have just trusted Great Britain in 1776? Are the wonders of technology so over rated that it's still not possible for one to opt out of being tracked by commerce when we are daily warned that the government is watching us and should be prevented from doing so? Corporations aren't elected by the populace as are members of the government but we are asked to trust them? Trust should be earned and not imposed!

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OK Google is a Trojan horse

I have always been squicked out by OK Google. How could it not listen to you? It's waiting for the culmination of syllables to react. Cortana on Windows 10 is the same thing ( but more useless. ) What concerns me most is there and is an entire generation who is never experienced life when there is any type of privacy. They don't even know enough to realize that they are being violated, and after a while, when this becomes the norm, no one will be around to say, " this is wrong."

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It may not be your phone that is doing the listening.
by TreknologyNet / May 20, 2016 10:04 PM PDT

Many alleged "law enforcement" bodies now use skimmers, which impersonate a cell tower. Therefore your entire conversation can be recorded while it is being passed on to a genuine tower. These skimmers can also be used to isolate mobile networks to prevent information about what's really happening from escaping the immediate environment, e.g., you're getting a good signal, but you can't make a phone call or a data connection.

Here, in Australia, digital phones were actively marketed to public as more secure than the analog network (because the digital network was "scanner proof"). This was actually ********. The digital encryption system for phones was not approved until ASIO (Australia's CIA wannabe) had a guaranteed back door (into the data stream, not individual phones).

My first "smart" phone was Android, and it was of limited capability, lasting for about five years. Its replacement is also Android but, as my phone is a phone, not a device for going online, almost every other feature has been deliberately disabled. This is not so much inspired by paranoia, it's more about keeping junk out of my phone. Emails and other fora can wait until I'm sitting at a real computer rather than another distraction when I'm about to cross the street in front of moving traffic.

I have given up on the illusion of privacy. I know that traffic cameras can decode the plate on my vehicle, I know that turning off the GPS function on my phone doesn't deactivate the actual chip and, as a gmail user, I rely on data overload to believe that if my emails are being read, there's nothing sufficiently salacious to make mine distinctly memorable to the poor third party who has to wade through them all.

When I am using a 'net browser (as required to enter this post), I use active ad-blockers. "They" may want to watch me, but I don't have to be distracted by "their" junk. Call it 1984 if you want but, at least for now, it's legal to use an OFF-switch.

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Recommendation?
by Encrypticon / June 10, 2016 9:15 AM PDT

What would you recommend to someone looking for complete privacy and encryption for talk or text?

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This Happens
by jg3arrow / May 20, 2016 10:36 PM PDT

My wife complains about this all the time. Now I know it happens to me. But how?
I was driving through Nice, France, on Wednesday with friends. My phone was on, but cellular data was off; I was not connected to wifi. I pointed out La Perouse hotel to my friends and mentioned what the name meant in French, and I noted what a good view it had. When I returned to my apartment in Italy that night, where I reconnect to wifi (still with cellular data switched off), I got pop up ads for booking assistance at La Perouse hotel! How?
After a trip to Florence the week before, where my wife had noticed an Eataly market and spoke about it, she got ads for Eataly. I didn't speak about it - just nodded - and I got no ads.
It is definitely the microphone eavesdropping - even when the phone's capabilities to listen are limited.
This also happens to us in the US and everywhere else we travel, so it is not a country-specific issue.

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Btw
by jg3arrow / May 20, 2016 10:50 PM PDT
In reply to: This Happens

We have iPhones.

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GPS?
by Hforman / May 21, 2016 11:03 AM PDT
In reply to: This Happens

I think that one possibility is not the phone itself but some apps running in the background. Yes, this could be the microphone but there is also a lot about GPS. For example, an APP that is subscribed to by a hotel can have their GPS coordinates registered in an APP that tracks your location and then detects that you were near that hotel. If you have the iPhone, you can go into settings and tp location services and see which apps are using this feature, especially in the background and think if this APP really needs that. In the case of the microphone, there is an area under settings --> microphone that will tell you which APPs have registered to use the microphone. So, whether it was the microphone or GPS location services, you can check these under settings. I hope this helps.

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could be NFC and proximity marketing
by renegade600 / May 21, 2016 2:14 AM PDT

the phone may not be listening, there is something called proximity marketing that could also be pushing targeted ads to your phones based on your location. Malls, stores, tourist attractions has the ability to push information to smartphones when NFC is enabled. That could be the notifications and ads you are seeing on your phones.

In addition, apps you installed also access to your GPS, they also can have local ads directed to your smartphone based on your location.

so don't assume the phone is listening through the microphone. more likely it is not because there really is not a reason to with all the other options availlable.

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That's good.
by celliott / May 21, 2016 4:44 AM PDT

Prayer works. So, if you think your phone is listening to you, use it to help others. What goes around, comes around. However, you can only help solve problems to which you have a solution, so to be effective you may have to do some reading.

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Dangers of corporate and state snooping
by hogan / May 21, 2016 5:22 AM PDT

This is a problem with phones and tv and other audio video equipment. If you have a microphone, speaker or camera fitted, there are ways to hack them to find out what you are doing, this over and above the hacking of GPS, wifi and celltower access.
Yes you should be worried, this is not about having nothing to hide, it is having someone checking up on you more than your friends and family do. Why should corporations know more about you than your family?
None of this is harmless snooping, it comes down to collecting data and agrigating that in Meta Data to track you and know if not come to control your behavior.
Worse case, the information can be used to predict the likelyhood of you breaking the law and have you arrested, put on a no fly list. I you think not, ask one of the million already on no fly lists for having said the wrong thing at the wrong time

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Control Your (Our) Behavior?
by time-to-spare / May 22, 2016 8:30 AM PDT

Interesting how you recognize that controlling behavior is what it's all about. All that advertising and marketing are intended to do is to control one's behavior and convert a consumer into a customer! So wherever there are consumers (internet, movie theaters, sporting events) there is, if you haven't noticed, behavior control at work. Is it unreasonable to expect that in the largest collection of consumers imaginable. i.e., the internet, efforts to control behavior will utilize any and all tools that are or may become available? Subliminal methods have been used in theaters to influence movie-goers to WANT popcorn and beverages, so will such methods allow new untapped avenues to be used, including the advent of 4K video streaming, to become a new topic discussion on CNET?

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It is possable !
by waynecnet1 / May 21, 2016 6:32 AM PDT

With all of the apps coming out with everything from A to Z need app for map reading you got it need one for kindle fire zap , If a consumer is that concerned I think they better leave their phone off or make sure the settings on it are correct like tracking and GPS settings.

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This has never happened to me
by victork1 / May 21, 2016 7:23 AM PDT

Of course it happens that I get advertising about things I searched, as in - typed, but never ever related to conversations I've had around my phone. I use Android and I have it with me ALL THE TIME. And I have voice recognition turned on. Therefore I must conclude that the users that had this experience must have installed some app / apps that do this. And must have not paid attention to the permissions warning before installing an app.

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Siri is listening
by Larry Gerard / May 21, 2016 3:24 PM PDT

I was watching TV the other night and Apple was running a commercial with the cookie monster asking Siri a question and Siri went searching

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