Are 'smartphones' (i.e. Google and social media) listening in on users' conversations for targetted advertising? I don't mean keeping a record of the voice commands we give virtual assistants, but conversations we have with other people while our phone is in the vicinity. I've seen resources both supporting and denying this claim and I cannot figure out what's true and which source is reliable.

On the one hand, some sources claim that phones are constantly listening to us (including this research and related article) and that it's how voice assistants pick up on wake words like "Ok, Google" and "Hey Siri". For example, from this article:

A voice-activated device has to be constantly eavesdropping so that it picks up on “wake words,” or the voice command used to activate their virtual assistant service. These range from “Hey Siri” or “OK, Google” to simply “Alexa” (much to the annoyance of anyone whose name starts with those five letters).

This doesn’t mean that it’s ignoring everything else being said. As mentioned, your smart devices use data of all types to create a “profile” of you as a user and consumer to show you the most relevant ads.


However, your Android phone can also be accidentally activated and record sensitive conversations or other details from your personal life. You could be having a conversation with a friend about some obscure fun fact. One of you doesn’t believe the other, and says “OK, Google it!” But your virtual assistant can certainly mistake other words or similar-sounding phrases as its wake word, too.

On the other hand, some sources (like this Guardian piece and this Washington Post article) say that our phones already have so much data on us, that it isn't really necessary for them to listen in our conversations for ad targeting, and that such a practice is infeasible.

So, are smartphones really listening to our conversations at all times for ad targetting?

  • 1
    Can you clarify why the Guardian and Washington Post stories didn't resolve your issue? The study cited appeared to have very loose controls -- some of the participants reported seeing ads for some of the locations they talked about during the sessions, but it's not clear if they abstained from Googling or otherwise looking up those locations, which would have triggered the advertising. Also, if they really wanted to know the answer, there are technological approaches to monitoring what info your phone is sending. Feb 20 at 18:06
  • 3
    @jeffronicus Monitoring what is sent is not enough, as the question is about how that data is used. The assistant app may well send voice data to a companion app on a server somewhere, for the purpose of extracting commands, but that wouldn't automatically mean it is shared with Google's advertising division.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 22 at 7:49


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