Any app on your iPhone could potentially listen in on your conversations and use that information to target you with tailored ads. Although most companies, including Facebook and Apple, have come out and vehemently denied these claims of spying on consumers, who's to say they're telling the truth? The only way to be sure you're safe is to take matters into your own hands.
Regardless of how transparent some companies may seem, they're still in the business of making money, and learning everything about you can make them billions. In this article, we'll explain the technology that these applications use to listen in on you and how you can prevent them from accessing your smartphone or tablet's microphone. Even if these apps aren't listening to all of your conversations, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Back in December 2017, The New York Times published an article detailing how certain mobile gaming apps keep tabs on their users by listening to certain sounds through their smartphone's mic. Using software from a company known as Alphonso, which collects viewing data for advertisers, certain gaming applications can use your phone's microphone to learn what you watch, listening in the background for audio signals playing from your TV, including gaming consoles, TV shows, streaming programs, and advertisements. The information is then analyzed and paired with your location (yes, they can also track your location) to learn which ads resulted in you going to a restaurant or retailer, for example.
If you go to Alphonso's website, they even have a template for mobile app developers to copy and paste into their app descriptions, explaining how their apps integrated with Alphonso Automated Content Recognition ("ACR") software can listen in on you. However, it is important to note three things: 1) audio samples don't leave your device, but are instead "hashed into digital audio signatures," 2) the ACR software does not "recognize or understand human conversations," and most importantly, 3) the software can only gain access to your phone's microphone with your consent.
Editor's Note: As of the day this article was published, we could no longer find any applications using the ACR software to listen in on you in the App Store.
Sadly, these malicious gaming apps aren't the only ones who could be listening in. Do you use triggers to prompt Siri ("Hey Siri") or Google ("Okay Google")? If so, these applications are listening in on you, and they have the potential to record your conversations. Although Apple recently sent a letter to Reuters claiming that their devices do not record audio while listening for Siri commands, lying isn't out of the question for the tech giant.
Even worse, there's potential that other applications on your smartphone, such as Facebook and Instagram, could have hundreds or thousands of hidden triggers, although what they are is anyone's guess. A conversation about wanting to purchase a new pair of glasses could activate the trigger. Once this happens, audio could be recorded and data transferred in encrypted form, making it nearly impossible to track.
Luckily, applications can only listen in on you and triggers can only be activated if you're giving them access to your microphone.
The first time you download and use an application, it may ask you to grant it access to your smartphone's microphone. While it makes sense to do it for some apps (WhatsApp), it may not be necessary for others (Fortnite). If an application asks you for access to the microphone, tap on "Don't Allow." Even if you do give an application access to the microphone, you can always go into the settings and remove access later on.
It's worth noting that removing access to the microphone may break certain functionality within some apps. For example, in the screenshot above, Amazon's voice search feature wouldn't work without microphone access. If this becomes a problem, you can always re-enable microphone access using the instructions in the next step, though you should do this sparingly and only with apps you explicitly trust.
If you want to remove microphone access to a third-party application after it's been granted, simply go to the Settings app and tap on "Privacy" and then on "Microphone." You'll see a list of every third-party application that has access to your microphone.
Toggle any of the switches to off (see below) to remove microphone access.
Not all applications with access to your microphone appear under the Microphone setting, including Siri. If you want Siri to stop listening for the "Hey Siri" trigger all of the time, disable the feature. Go to the Settings app and tap on "Siri & Search." Scroll down and turn off "Listen for Hey Siri." Although Siri will still use your microphone when you turn it on, it won't actively be listening to you in the background.