One in five Aussies believe their smartphones are spying on their lives

I have a strange feeling my phone has been listening in on my personal conversations.

Before you suggest that I’m a few sandwiches short of a picnic, hear me out.

I am four months pregnant and this morning during my regular face-to-face conversations I’ve chin-wagged with friends, colleagues and my significant other about waking up dehydrated, discovering we’d run out of milk (disaster), generally finding I don’t have enough energy or hours in the day right now to do my regular chores, finding my clothes are starting to become a little too skin-tight, and complaining that dental care is not covered by Medicare – all within arm’s distance of my mobile phone.

Then after ordering my coffee at a local cafe, I started scrolling through Facebook on my phone and noticed a rather shocking trend in my targeted ads.

The first advertisement to suggest a fix to my vocalised problems spruiked an orange-flavoured bottle of water “specifically designed to help meet the hydration and electrolyte needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women”. Ugh, no thanks. But creepy.

A few more scrolls down and I am faced with a promotion from a dairy company which is offering to fix another two of my recent lamentations: “Win $10K to spend on a cleaner, a gardener or a meal delivery service!” … if I just buy the product and upload a photo of me using it to the featured website. Ok, is anyone else feeling a little freaked out right now?

The third ad tells me I can “wake up wonderful” with a new tea blend that apparently encourages a more restful sleep.

The fourth tries to sell me some flowing rouched-front dresses (to update my shrinking wardrobe and cover up my burgeoning bump, perhaps).

And lastly, an ad for a local dental clinic informs me that they accept bulk billing for kids up to the age of 17. Ah … ok … now I’m thinking of keeping my phone in another room at all times.

I’m not your usual conspiracy theorist – I like to swallow a daily dose of skepticism with my breakfast.

And I’m not the only one who has been feeling the hairs stand up on the back of their neck.

Nearly one in five Australians think their smartphone is eavesdropping on them, according to a recent survey by finder.com.au.

The extrapolated results mean the equivalent of 3.2 million people say they’ve had a conversation about a product or service, only to see an advertisement pop up about it on their social media feeds soon after.

This is made up of 12 percent—or 2.1 million Australians—who are ‘totally freaked out’ by the fact that their devices appear to hear what they say; and six percent who believe it’s the trade-off for getting a free service like Facebook or YouTube.

Of the 2,085 respondents surveyed, Australians aged 18 to 23 were the most paranoid, with 37 percent convinced their smartphones are listening in on their conversations and exploiting that knowledge.

The research found 33 percent of Gen Y suspects their devices are listening to them, compared to 12 percent of Gen X and  four percent of Baby Boomers.

But finder.com.au’s tech guy, Angus Kidman, said there’s no need to get the tinfoil hat out just yet.

“There’s no evidence that smartphones themselves are ‘listening in’,” he said.

“If you’ve been chatting to your friend about a product and it suddenly pops up in an advertisement in your social media feed — the most logical explanation is you’re noticing it more.

“It’s human nature to look for links and patterns, when in actuality most of the time it’s just a coincidence. We often remember an ad when it seems topical, but forget all the times that we’ve scrolled past other ads and never even noticed it.”

But before you totally write this phenomenon off without apparent cause, consider your online history.

“It’s no coincidence that consumers are targeted by certain products in their Facebook and Instagram feeds — it’s insights gleaned from websites you visit and online retailers you shop with,” he said.

“There are plenty of apps monitoring and recording your every move, we just can’t blame the smartphone itself,” said Mr Kidman.

“Even if you have nothing to hide, apps and websites like Facebook are tracking our activity closely online, and we need to bear in mind that we share a lot of information and data.”

If you’re still not convinced that Big Brother isn’t, in fact, listening in on your lives, here are some helpful tips to protect your privacy:

  • Adjust your settings and disable access to your microphone in your apps. You might need to toggle it on and off for when you do need to record sound for your Instagram story or Skype a relative, but at least when it’s not needed, you know it’s off. 
  • Disable location services so apps can’t access your GPS location. Turn it back on when you’re using Google Maps or need to jump into an Uber.
  • You might still use Siri for a giggle, but if you genuinely don’t use your voice assistant, go into the setting and disable the voice detection 

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This story Have our phones been spying on us? first appeared on Guardian News.