Is your phone spying on you?

Who hasn’t felt heard, even spied on by their phone when sending us a highly targeted ad without us doing any research on the product in question? Are we going to listen? “Currently, there is no real evidence that such a practice exists. Several tests were conducted, but the results were not very conclusive: no study revealed that telephone microphones were used without the owner’s knowledge, in a systematic way for advertising purposes; these are tricky things to show.”

“If we had to listen to everyone 24 hours a day it would still be difficult technically. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” explains Félicien Vallet, AI manager at Cnil (National Commission on Computing and Freedom). Not to mention that the legal risk would be huge for digital giants who violate the confidentiality of communications and privacy. So how are these super-targeted ads delivered to users? Four explanations according to experts.

voice assistant

The role of the voice assistant is to listen to us (if the user has authorized it) to be able to trigger speaking the activation keywords: “OK Google” (for Google Assistant), “Alexa” ( for Amazon Assistant ) and “Hey Siri” (for Apple). The problem is with the “false positives”: words that sound like “OK,” “Alexa,” or “Hey Siri.” The assistant then starts up without us wanting it and sometimes without realizing it.

It is recommended to regularly consult his interaction history with his voice assistant for any unwanted hearing.

Then what about snippets of conversations recorded without our knowledge? “In the case of fake receipts, Google Assistant can use this data to aggregate your profile and operate ad targeting, many voice assistant services are supported by advertising logic, explains Félicien Vallet. It is therefore recommended that users regularly consult their interaction history with their voice assistant for any unwanted hearing.


Some apps have access to your microphone, address book, camera, etc. with, in some cases, transmission to third parties without the user’s knowledge. “Seeker Matthew Cunche (INSA-Lyon/Inria) also pointed out that the world of mobile apps is a bit like the “Wild West” and that “it is possible for malicious or profit-hungry companies to siphon our data in order to then profile us and target them. offers,” said Félicien Vallet. So beware of apps and trackers!

Contact network

Another explanation for the appearance of specifically targeted ads is the fact that “we thrive in a network of acquaintances”, according to experts from Cnil. “We all evolve in different networks (family, friends, professionals, etc.) and knowledge of the relationships between individuals is a great source of information. You may never mention your desire to travel to Chile online, but your best friend you talk to may have researched Chile… Location data can be very useful for characterizing a person’s profile by identifying residents with the same household, people with the same company, etc. »

The traces we left behind…

Through our purchases, our navigation (using cookies and other trackers), we sow a number of small pebbles… And the major players in online advertising rely on collecting vast amounts of data that have proven to be highly indicative of users’ interests and habits. They then only need to send them relevant advertisements. Apart from that, this large company offers many services to its users from which the extracted information is then linked together. Google thus mobilizes information from Gmail, YouTube, Drive, Maps, etc.

How to protect yourself?

Therefore, while there is no systematic collection of audio conversations, there are many other ways to collect individual data in order to offer them specifically targeted advertisements. Félicien Vallet encourages users to protect their privacy as much as possible by “disabling unnecessary collection parameters (geolocation authorization, cookie storage, etc.)”. The expert also recommends “uninstalling apps you don’t use and most importantly only downloading trusted apps”.

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