Tag: privacy

No, your iPhone is not listening to you

There’s a lot of FUD going around about your phone lis­ten­ing to every­thing you say and sell­ing that data to adver­tis­ers. This is wild­ly and irre­spon­si­bly mis­lead­ing.

I can’t speak for Android phones because those things are the Wild West of APIs and out­dat­ed OSes and mal­ware, so use Android phones at your own risk.

Here is the claim being made, in short:

Any third-par­ty (non-Apple) app you have installed on your iPhone can record and remote­ly save con­ver­sa­tions tak­ing place with­in earshot of your iPhone, even when the app isn’t run­ning (in the fore­ground or in the back­ground), and even when the phone is sleep­ing.

This is patent­ly false. Third-par­ty iOS apps can only record audio when they are run­ning in the fore­ground or run­ning in the back­ground, and only if you have giv­en them per­mis­sion to do so. And even if you have grant­ed micro­phone access to the Face­book app, for instance, if you “kill” Face­book by swip­ing up on it in the app switch­er, Face­book is quit and can no longer access the micro­phone in any way.

Fur­ther, when third-par­ty apps are using the micro­phone, there is a big red bar with a micro­phone icon at the top of the screen of your phone in the sta­tus bar. There is as far as I know no way for devel­op­ers to pre­vent this from appear­ing.

In oth­er words, in order for any third-par­ty app to “lis­ten to you” through your iPhone:

  1. That app must be run­ning, either in the fore­ground or the back­ground.
  2. You must have explic­it­ly grant­ed that app per­mis­sion to access your micro­phone.
  3. There will be a red micro­phone icon at the top of your screen.

If any of those three things haven’t hap­pened or aren’t hap­pen­ing, then that app is not lis­ten­ing to you.


How do I explain, then, all the anec­do­tal evi­dence that ads for cer­tain prod­ucts show up after peo­ple start shout­ing about mat­tress­es into their phones?

First, this is anec­do­tal and can­not be trust­ed. Nobody behind these arti­cles has even tried to mon­i­tor what domains are being pinged by their router in an attempt to deter­mine where all these record­ings are secret­ly being sent.

Sec­ond, if you come up with a ran­dom prod­uct cat­e­go­ry, and espe­cial­ly if that cat­e­go­ry is mat­tress­es (!!! The most adver­tised inter­net thing there is!), and you only start to notice ads for that prod­uct cat­e­go­ry after you’ve begun whis­per­ing the phrase, then this is like­ly a fail­ing of your per­cep­tion. We are all way, way more blind than we real­ize and fil­ter out 99% of our sur­round­ings. If you say “I swear I nev­er saw an ad for t‑shirts before this!,” that is a com­plete­ly unre­li­able claim.

Third, adver­tis­ers already know tons and tons about you just from your brows­ing habits. They don’t need to lis­ten through your phone’s micro­phone. Face­book and Google already know every site you vis­it as well as in what things the peo­ple in your demo­graph­ic are inter­est­ed and prob­a­bly talk­ing about with you and your friends.

All this anec­do­tal evi­dence is coin­ci­den­tal.

A fairer, more conscientious alternative to AdBlock Plus

Hav­ing just stum­bled across an arti­cle advo­cat­ing against AdBlock Plus (via Lea Ver­ou), I decid­ed to revis­it my set­tings for rel­a­tive­ly nui­sance-free brows­ing in Fire­fox.

For a long time I’ve done devel­op­ment work and writ­ing for a site that keeps its lights on through adver­tis­ing, so I sym­pa­thize with con­tent-cre­ators’ need for (and frus­tra­tion with) ads. It’s a nec­es­sary evil, and I’ve always found it a bit dis­heart­en­ing to see AdBlock Plus at the top of every “Pop­u­lar Plu­g­ins” list (whether for Chrome, Fire­fox, or Safari). Worse, there seems to be a sense of enti­tle­ment among savvy inter­net users, telling them that they should­n’t have to endure ads. Com­mon­ly this might be veiled as being “anti-cor­po­rate” or some oth­er such vague excuse, but the real rea­sons are usu­al­ly the same as those behind pira­cy: it’s just nice not to have to pay for things, whether through eye­balls, band­width, or dol­lars.

(None of this is to say that I am entire­ly inno­cent on these points.)

Still, there are some trou­bling com­mon prac­tices among the more insid­i­ous of these JavaScript embeds, and I think there is some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in cir­cum­vent­ing them. But one does­n’t need to block every adver­tise­ment to severe­ly dimin­ish adver­tis­ers’ abil­i­ty to, say, keep track of one’s brows­ing habits.

Here are the things you can do to make your brows­ing a lit­tle more pri­vate and safe, while still (most­ly) allow­ing the sites you love to pay their bills. These tips will be writ­ten for Fire­fox users (though the equiv­a­lent plu­g­ins are read­i­ly avail­able in Chrome and Safari), and won’t include things that read­ers of this site will prob­a­bly already know about (e.g., avoid­ing “watch movies free” sites and their ilk, and dis­abling pop-ups).

Con­tin­ue →