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Targeted Advertising: Is your phone spying on you?


In the UK, smartphones are now the most popular way to access the internet. Ofcom research shows that 88% of adults used their phones to get online in 2021. And over one-fifth of people only use a phone – nothing else. The big tech platforms know this. So, they built new ways for brands to show ads to their target audience. But it has led to a phenomenon where it feels like our phones can ‘hear’ us. The outcome? Targeted ads based on private conversations.

Is your phone listening to you?

Some might call it a conspiracy theory. But others are very concerned. Are phones listening to our conversations? Even those we have face-to-face? How else can it explain an ad for a product or service you’ll never need for? Sometimes, it’s too close to home to be a coincidence. After all, our phones have become a powerful piece of handheld kit.

The evidence might be anecdotal at best. But there is no doubt that Brits believe their phones can hear them. Three-in-five UK smartphone owners say it’s at least “likely” to be happening, says a 2021 YouGov poll. Two-thirds said they see an online product for an ad after talking about it in person. And it is younger people who are the most cautious about this apparent new tactic.

Worried about targeted ads? 

So, what can you do if you think your phone is listening to you? The good news is there are a few easy steps you can take. The first? Turn the tables on your phone. That’s right – it can be as simple as turning off the mic unless you’re actually making a call. Or you can review all the app permissions on your phone. After all, do you need your mic on when using Instagram?

You can also take it to the next level. You can install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to protect your online privacy. A VPN can also bring other benefits – like stopping anyone from getting hold of any personal data. Not only that, but apps such as NordVPN offer extra threat protection. This can give you extra peace of mind by keeping you clear of malicious ads or nasty software.

What are tech giants saying?

Staying safe online is a good idea anyway – even if your phone isn’t listening to you. But what are the tech giants themselves saying about this? Google and Facebook are two of the biggest online ad platforms. It’s not a shock, then, to learn that people are pointing fingers at them. In response, both companies reject claims that they use tech to listen to you.

Google says it only listens to you as soon as you use the ‘OK Google’ command. Other tech firms deny listening in too. But that’s not going to convince a suspicious public. And, for as long as we keep seeing ads that don’t seem right, it’ll be hard to believe our phones aren’t listening to us.