by Baylie Clevenger

Since the beginning of cell phones, there have been many questions about the safety of using them. Do they give people cancer? Are they causing young people to be less social? And arguably the most interesting: are they listening to us?

In July of 2016, a couple on YouTube under the channel name of Neville decided to do an experiment to see if their phones were listening to them. They had never had a cat and never discussed buying cat food or anything about a cat, previous to this experiment. They then decided to specifically discuss cat food for a while to see if Facebook would give them an ad for cat food… and a couple days later they had an ad for cat food on their Facebook.

Now, this is not a one time thing. A simple twitter search for “our phones are listening to us” returns tweet upon tweet about people experiencing similar situations.

Similar to Facebook, I personally experience this with Instagram ads. While this may seem different, consider that Facebook paid 1 billion dollars for Instagram in 2012.

This is also not the only time security of Facebook users’ information has come into question. Complaints about user privacy have been questioned since 2011 when Facebook received complaints from the Federal Trade Commission about the privacy of Facebook users’ information.

Last week, Facebook was under fire again for selling information to a third party analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica. They have known about this information breach since 2015 and they just recently banned the third party source.

So let’s break this down: what does selling information to this third party firm mean for Facebook users? Basically this firm took user information without their permission and used it to specifically target certain users with different political ads. The currently suspended CEO was also caught on film bragging about using this information, as well as fabricated sex scandals, to sway voters.

With all of this evidence that just one app is using people’s information in this way, it would not be unreasonable to think that this information is useful to them. Why wouldn’t they want more information?

Digital Trends reported that in just a single quarter, Facebook made more than 9 billion dollars from ad revenue. That is an unfathomable amount of money, why wouldn’t they want to listen to us to provide us with more ads to make more money?

It is also not outlandish to think that our phones are listening to us at all times. For example: features on iPhones like “Hey, Siri” allow users to call out “Hey Siri” to their phone rather than having to press down the home button to access Siri. Would this not mean that phones are listening at all times for users to say “Hey Siri.”

This feature was introduced by Apple in 2015, they called it “passive-listening” technology. This is basically just a fancy, watered-down way of saying your phone will be constantly listening and waiting for users to call upon them. This means that if this feature is enabled, which it is in many cases, then a user’s phone is already listening at all times.

There are similar features on android phones in which the user creates a personalized phrase to awake the siri-like digital assistant. This means that this is not limited to iPhones which have the Siri feature. Other things like the Amazon Alexa are also listening for users to call upon them. This means that there are electronic devices everywhere that are waiting and listening.

Cell phones today are more powerful than ever and capable of listening in on anything said around them. The apps we use are owned by people who make the bulk of their money from advertisements. With this all in mind, cell phone users need to consider the reality that cell phones are more intrusive than we may think.


Sources: YouTube, Twitter, Digital Trends

Images: YouTube, Twitter, Pexels

Baylie is a Journalism major minoring in Gender Studies. She writes for The Odyssey as well as Byte. Baylie has two dogs and owns too much lipstick.

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