MINNEAPOLIS -- Your smart phone follows you wherever you go, tracks your movements and stores all kinds of personal data. If you do a Google search these days you're no longer surprised to be targeted with ads relating to your search.
It's a reality most people have learned to live with because functioning without a mobile device is increasingly hard to do. But what about the idea of your phone eavesdropping on your conversations?
It's a notion generating some serious buzz: people who suspect their smart phones are spying because they've seen online ads pop up for things they've never searched for but have merely chatted about within earshot their devices.
"One thing I don't think a lot of consumers recognize is that phones are really snitches in their pockets," Sean Lanterman of Minnetonka-based Computer Forensics Services told KARE 11, noting that smartphones are almost always connected to the Internet and they've got microphones.
"You can be having a conversation and you have an application that has a microphone capability, and next thing you know you're being advertised as to what your conversation was about."
Case in point, KARE 11 viewer Lori Halverson got ads for Toyota and the show Riverdale on Twitter just hours after talking to a friend about needing an oil change at Toyota, and looking forward to Riverdale's new season.
She said she never actively looked up those key words in an online search engine, so found it rather "creepy" to see the ads come up in her news feed.
Viewer Mike Landberg said he teased his roommate about drinking wine and having too much body hair, and later that night his roommate had ads for a winery and a hair removal gadget pop up on his Instagram feed.
The same type of thing happened to KARE 11 digital media director Laura Stokes.
"Earlier today I was talking with a colleague, and I told her I loved her glasses. She said she went to Warby Parker," Stokes recalled. "She said 'Wait I've got a new place for you to look at called Zenni' and I wrote it down, old school style, on a piece of paper because I thought I do want to look that up later."
Laura never got a chance to look for Zenni, but Zenni found her.
"Two to three hours later I was on Facebook, and I was scrolling through my feed, and there was an ad for Zenni. I hadn't Googled it, I hadn't looked it up yet."
Yes, Laura keeps her phone next to her computer at her desk.
Another colleague said, to nobody in particular, she was freezing. A bit later several ads for sweaters showed up on her Facebook feed on her laptop.
"Your phone is always transmitting, always phoning home, it's always connected to the Internet," Lanterman explained.
"I think consumers just need to be wary of the agreements they're entering when they're using any piece of technology."
He pointed out that some people actually plant secret apps on their adversaries' phones specifically designed to use the built-in microphones
So, yes, we can verify it's happening to people -- they're being targeted with advertising based on words their smart phone microphones overhear.
It's harder to pin down just who, or what, is behind it.
Google concedes the company does use things you say to Google Assistant to route ads your way, but the cyber world giant flat-out denies spying.
"We only process speech after the hot word 'Ok Google' is detected,"
Facebook also denies eavesdropping, to wit, "Facebook does not use your phone's microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed."
But if you accept the premise your smart phone's microphone is eavesdropping, it's not reporting directly to another person. It's talking to other machines.
"It's an automated process. It's not someone on the other end reading it," Lanterman explained. "It's computers that have advanced algorithms that are deciphering what it means."
If you find all of this disturbing, there are steps you can take. First find out how many apps are using your microphone.
On your iPhone navigate to settings, then privacy, then microphone, and you'll see a display of which apps have access to your mic. You can then turn some or all of them off.
On Android devices, you can also check for microphone settings by going to applications manager and permissions.
But the next time you use the app that requires a microphone, for example the Facebook Live function, it will prompt you to activate the microphone again.
As it turned out Laura Stokes had 12 apps using her microphone. She can only guess which one of those apps is all ears, as it were.
Sean Lanterman, Computer Forensics Services
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