Is your iPhone listening in on your conversations?

Carlton Boyce / 05 April 2016

Are our phones and gadgets really monitoring and analysing everything we say - even when they are supposed to be switched off?



I periodically consider ditching my iPhone 6 for an old-fashioned Nokia. You know, the one with the week-long battery life and the ability to only make phone calls and send text messages. 

But then I come to my senses and realise that the life of a busy journalist would be infinitely harder without having constant access to a camera, web browser, Dictaphone, and video recorder.

Yet this sophistication comes at a cost, and that cost might just be that your smartphone is listening to every word that you say…

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Science fiction or science fact?

That Smartphones are theoretically capable of listening into your conversations, even when you aren’t making a telephone call, is well proven. 

Researchers have created an app that listens in to a conversation, relaying it to a nearby computer where the speech is displayed as text, demonstrating that the concept is sound.

However, the reality that this is actually happens is hotly disputed by the major technology companies.

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Does it actually happen?

Yes. Edward Snowden, the infamous whistleblower, revealed that the security services have long had the ability to listen in to conversations using a smartphone’s microphone, even when the phone is turned off. The security services don’t deny this, arguing that this is a necessary breach of privacy that helps them prevent and detect crime and terrorism.

On a lower level, Siri takes voice commands to provide answers, although Apple denies that the microphone is in use until the appropriate voice command is given. 

It also claims that it instructs app developers that they must not develop anything that collects data without the user's explicit consent, deleting any apps that breach this code.

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Why would anyone else do it?

The simple answer is to be able to better tailor advertising to iPhone users. 

The Internet is awash with people who claim to have had a conversation about death or taxes, only to find their phone suggesting adverts on these very topics, topics they claim they have never entered into a search box, meaning that the information can only have been collected by listening into their conversations.

This would be bad enough if this information had been collected during a telephone call but the claims include people who say that this isn’t the case and that the conversations just happened to take place in the same room as their smartphone.

Apple denies that this is possible, although its terms and conditions does include a clause saying that: “By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and dictation functionality in other Apple products and services.” 

This could potentially include allowing Apple employees to listen in to everything you’ve said via Siri to enable them to check the accuracy of how well your iPhone interpreted what was said.

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What can I do about it?

You can turn off access to your iPhone’s microphone by selecting ‘Settings’ > ‘Privacy’. Now tap the ‘Microphone’ option and you’ll be able to see a list of every app that has been given access to your phone’s microphone. Simply move the slider across to deny access.

Does that completely solve the problem?

Well, that’s all you can do to prevent up-front access to your iPhone’s microphone but if you are really worried, you might want to start leaving your iPhone in a separate room so it physically can’t listen in to everything you say.

Or you could ditch your iPhone and buy that Nokia.

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Is it just the iPhone?

No. Similar issues have also been reported with Android Smartphones and Google Now, while Samsung Smart TVs are alleged to listen in to conversations and relay them to The Cloud.

The Xbox One doesn’t only listen in to you – even when it’s turned off – but the microphone is so sensitive that it can listen in to your heartbeat. Yes, you did read that right; it can listen to your heartbeat.

Do you think that surrendering an element of privacy is worth the convenience of having a connected ‘smart’ device that makes your life easier? Or does the thought of having every conversation monitored put you off using or buying them? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

For more tips and useful information, browse our technology articles.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.