Does Your Phone Listen to You? Yes, and Here’s What You Can Do About It

Have you ever noticed how eerily timely and relevant some of the advertisements shown on your smartphone can be? As you may have experienced, it sometimes feels like your phone is listening to your conversations based on how it seems to know what you’re talking about and interested in. You’re not alone in this suspicion.

In this article, let me walk you through why your phone appears to listen, the extent it does so, the legality around it, and most importantly, what you can do to take control of your privacy. With a few simple steps, you can keep your personal information secure and start blocking unwanted snooping.

Why Does My Phone Seem to Listen to Me?

There are two main reasons your phone seems to listen to you:

To Serve Relevant Ads

Tech companies like Google monitor your voice data and combine it with other activity, like search history, to build a profile of you as a user. They do this to serve you advertisements most relevant to your interests and conversations, just like how search engines track browsing behavior to target ads.

For example, if their voice monitoring picks up you talking about buying a new pair of running shoes with a friend, you may suddenly see more shoe advertisements pop up on your phone.

To Improve Virtual Assistants

Your voice data also helps companies like Apple and Google improve their virtual assistant services, like Siri and Google Assistant. The more conversational data they can feed these AIs, the better they become at understanding natural language and responding accurately to voice commands.

As a cybersecurity expert, I can tell you that the ubiquity of voice-activated smart devices shows technology companies see huge value in collecting voice data to enhance their assistants and products. But are they gathering too much data from users without meaningful consent? That‘s the important debate.

Is My Phone Always Listening?

Given that your phone listens to improve itself and make money through ads, you may wonder if it‘s listening every second. Technically, yes – your smartphone is virtually always "listening."

A 2022 Pew Research study found an estimated 62% of U.S. adults believed their phones were listening to them to record what they say. This always-on listening works as follows:

  • Constantly listens for “wake words” like “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” to activate voice assistants

  • Captures other audio like conversations, which get used to target ads or analyze statistical patterns in speech

  • Only sends full recordings when you trigger the wake word, ask a question, or otherwise actively engage with a voice assistant

So your phone is nearly always passively listening and processing small snippets of audio in the background. But it‘s not necessarily recording full conversations or streaming them back to Silicon Valley 24/7.

As a cybersecurity expert, I feel companies could be more transparent about the extent of their passive listening and gathering of voice data. Users deserve more clarity and control here.

By the Numbers: Consumer Beliefs About Phone Listening

Recent surveys have gauged consumer perceptions about their phones listening:

% of U.S. adults who believe their phone listens to them for ads 79%
% concerned phone makers & apps collect too much personal data 80%
% who say smartphone is "essential" to daily life 46%

Sources: BankMyCell (2022), Statista (2019)

High levels of concern but also reliance on phones presents an interesting challenge. Users feel increasingly dependent on devices that make them uneasy when it comes to data practices and privacy.

Is It Legal for Phones to Listen In?

Yes, unfortunately it‘s 100% legal for phone manufacturers and carriers to allow this kind of voice monitoring and data collection. You likely agreed to it without realizing it in the fine print of a terms and conditions form for a software update or app download. In the eyes of the law, clicking "Agree" or "Accept" to use a product or service means consenting to their data gathering.

This is how your voice data can be recorded, packaged, analyzed, and monetized without your explicit say-so. As a cybersecurity expert, while this passive listening may technically be legal, I think companies have an ethical duty to be more transparent about how customer data gets used. Users deserve clearer consent and "opt-in by default" privacy standards.

That said, just because passive listening is legal doesn‘t mean you phone can‘t illegally listen too! Like any gadget linked to the net, smartphones face threats from:

  • Spyware – Malicious software that tracks your activity and sends data back to hackers
  • Malware – Viruses designed to infect, damage, or disable phones

This is why limiting app permissions and sticking to verified apps from official stores is so important.

How to Restrict Your Android Phone‘s Listening

Let‘s move on to the good stuff – actionable steps you can take to set boundaries around your smartphone listening to you constantly. Here are tips tailored for Android users:

Delete Suspicious Apps

If you‘re concerned about spyware or malware, the first step is removing shady apps:

  1. Go to Settings > Apps and look for anything suspicious.

  2. Select unwanted apps and tap Uninstall.

  3. Confirm removal in the pop-up prompts.

This deletes potential sources of intrusive listening from your phone. Be wary of unauthorized third-party app stores outside of Google Play.

Use Antivirus Software

Installing antivirus / anti-malware software can help protect your phone by scanning for threats. Look for apps that:

  • Actively monitor for spyware
  • Block known malicious sites/activity
  • Have high malware detection rates

Popular options include Norton 360, McAfee Mobile Security, and Bitdefender Mobile Security.

Toggle App Permissions

You can take back control of which apps access your microphone, contacts, location and more:

  1. Go to Settings > Apps & notifications > App permissions

  2. Tap permission categories like Microphone to see which apps have access

  3. Toggle off access for apps you don‘t want listening

Limit Voice Assistant Access

Voice assistants obviously need microphone access, but you can still limit them:

  1. Open the Google Assistant app

  2. Go to Settings > Google Assistant

  3. Turn off Google Assistant toggles for "Web & App Activity" and "Your Data in Assistant”

This prevents your interactions with Google Assistant from being used to build advertising profiles or improve their services.

Disable iPhone Listening

What about iPhones? Here are key steps every Apple user should take to restrict listening:

Turn Off Siri Completely

Siri has powerful capabilities when enabled. But if you want to prevent your iPhone from listening at all:

  1. Go to Settings > Siri & Search

  2. Turn off Listen for "Hey Siri" | Press Home/Side Button for Siri | Allow Siri When Locked

  3. Confirm turning Siri fully Off when prompted

This completely disables Apple‘s virtual assistant from listening out for your voice.

Review App Permissions

You can control specifically which iPhone apps are allowed microphone access:

  1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone

  2. Review the list of apps with access

  3. Toggle off microphone access for any unwanted apps

This prevents those apps from listening in and collecting voice data.

Use a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts all activity on your iPhone, including hiding voice data from your mobile carrier. Top-rated VPNs to consider using include ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, and NordVPN.

Reset Your iPhone

For a "clean slate" to remove any risks of spyware, you can fully reset your iPhone to factory default settings. Just know this will erase your data.

Go to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings to initiate the reset process after backing up your must-save data.

7 More Smartphone Privacy Tips

Beyond limiting listening, here are other quick privacy tips:

  • Update your OS – Software updates often patch security flaws that can be exploited by malware. Keep your Android and iOS up-to-date.

  • Read privacy policies – They can be dry but important to understand what you‘re agreeing to. Avoid vague policies.

  • Limit ad tracking – Opt out of targeted advertising in your Google and iOS privacy settings.

  • Use stronger passwords – A long, complex passcode makes your lock screen harder to crack. Enable fingerprint or face unlock for added security.

  • Monitor notifications – Certain apps shouldn‘t need to constantly notify you. Disable unnecessary notifications to limit distractions and protect privacy.

  • Delete unused apps – Get rid of apps you no longer use, especially those that may access sensitive phone features like microphone or contacts.

  • Monitor battery usage – Apps that excessively drain your battery in the background could be mining your data. Delete data-hungry apps you don‘t absolutely require.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let‘s wrap up with answers to some commonly asked questions:

Does my phone listen to all my conversations?

Your phone likely only records snippets of conversation to gather data, not full talks. But there is still a risk of it capturing sensitive audio. Take steps to disable microphone access and limit unnecessary listening.

Is my phone literally always watching and listening?

Not quite. It passively listens for wake words and processes audio in the background but doesn‘t necessarily record everything. However, your camera could be accessed by spyware so be careful which apps get camera permissions.

What‘s the most private smartphone?

Phones like the Blackphone line with built-in encryption and the Privacy Phone by WileyFox offer some of the best privacy protections. In general, privacy-centric Android spin-offs provide more control than the average iPhone or Samsung. But no phone is 100% immune to potential espionage.

Take Control of Your Smartphone Privacy

Privacy is clearly on the minds of many smartphone owners today. With our phones being such troves of personal data, you have every right to feel uneasy about how tech companies gather and use your information.

The good news is you can take back power over your privacy. With a privacy-first mindset and these tips, you can use your smartphone more securely. Guard your data, limit unwanted access and listening, and think carefully about the permissions you grant. Stay vigilant, but don‘t let privacy fears discourage you from getting the most out of this amazing technology!

Luis Masters

Written by Luis Masters

Luis Masters is a highly skilled expert in cybersecurity and data security. He possesses extensive experience and profound knowledge of the latest trends and technologies in these rapidly evolving fields. Masters is particularly renowned for his ability to develop robust security strategies and innovative solutions to protect against sophisticated cyber threats.

His expertise extends to areas such as risk management, network security, and the implementation of effective data protection measures. As a sought-after speaker and author, Masters regularly contributes valuable insights into the evolving landscape of digital security. His work plays a crucial role in helping organizations navigate the complex world of online threats and data privacy.