How does social media know what I’m thinking?

Is it just me or does it feel like your smart phone is listening to you? Or that it can read your mind?

I was sitting with a friend recently and we chatted about a game we played as kids, called Roller Coaster Tycoon. The premise of the game was to build your own amusement park and and build epic roller coasters. An hour after the fact, he pops open Facebook and on the top of his news feed is an advertisement for Roller Coaster Tycoon. Wow! Let me tell you that our eyebrows raised a little. It’s always been an ongoing joke that our phones are listening to us, but is that true?

Our smartphones are incredible devices. Inside our palm sits a small computer that is capable of doing an infinite number of tasks at any moment. Our phones and computers track and collect data, offloading and keeping the data out of our sight, but within reach of advertising companies.

In mid-2018, a reporter for Vice experimented to see just how closely smartphones listen to our conversations. To test his phone, the journalist spoke preselected phrases twice a day for five days in a row. Meanwhile, he monitored his Facebook feed to see if any changes occurred. Sure enough, the changes seemed to arrive overnight. One of his test phrases involved going “back to university,” and by the next morning, the reporter saw ads for summer courses. He then changed up his test phrase to “cheap shirts” and quickly saw advertisements for low-cost apparel on his Facebook feed.

Komando, K.U.T. (2019, December 20). You’re not paranoid: Your phone really is listening in. USA TODAY:

If you’re like me, you probably sat back and said, “Wow really?” after reading that. Followed shortly by the next question. Is this legal?

Privacy Policies.

The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more revealing. For this access to be created, we must agree to privacy policies.

We’ve seen it before: you sign up for a new app or device, and you have to agree to a privacy policy from that application or device. If you’re like me, you quickly check the “agree” box and move forward never giving it another thought. However, that agree box is exactly how apps and devices are able to track what you are searching for, or browsing on your search engine, and send you advertisements that ultimately could cause you to buy that “thing.”

But can’t I opt-out?

That’s a great question. Some apps and websites are very straightforward and ask you if they can use your data; while others will hide it in a long sea of privacy policy pages where it is harder to keep track of what you are agreeing to.

Never fear though, there are ways to check your apps to see if they are tracking your location data. This can simply be done by going into your phone, into your privacy settings, and then into your location settings. There you may find out what apps are tracking your location or are being allowed to send you advertisements.


Some devices take it a step further by giving you the option of turning off personalized advertising. If you are looking to turn that off on your phone or computer, a quick google search could help you quickly find out how to turn it off on your device.

But is my microphone recording me?

Well yes it could be. When you download any new app to your phone it will most likely request access to your microphone. There are many reasons why an app will do this. It could be Zoom where you will be using the microphone for meetings, for example. Other applications will use your microphone to record clips to improve their applications’ accuracy. One article from CNBC states:

A report from Bloomberg revealed that thousands of Amazon employees are listening to what people say when they talk to Alexa. Amazon said it uses these conversations to improve Alexa’s “understanding of human speech.” Bloomberg’s report Wednesday said the voice snippets are tied to device serial numbers and the owner’s first name. An Amazon spokesperson said Echo devices only make recordings after hearing a wake word like Alexa.

Haselton, T. (2019, April 11). Amazon employees are listening to what you say to Alexa — here’s how to stop them. CNBC.

However, for other apps, it may not seem immediately obvious the need for your microphone access. Not every app or device will ask you outright for permission. Once again, this could be tucked away inside the privacy policy settings without you even realizing it. But there is a way to find out which apps have access to your microphone. You can search for your microphone on your smart device, quickly see which apps are using this feature, and possibly find any clips your microphone has already recorded and delete them.

Are my other smart devices listening to me?

Chances are, yes. However, there is a useful tool to help find out which smart devices have this ability and what exactly they do with that information.

In 2017, Mozilla created a website called: *privacy not included. The main goal was to help users know what advancements and security their devices have by keeping up with the latest tech devices and giving clear descriptions of what each device is allowing when access is permitted. The website places a yellow caution sign by any device that has limited privacy settings available for the consumer. This website was very enlightening for me. I found myself learning some very helpful security tips about my smart doorbell that is installed on my home.

After reading through all these instances, it can feel as though we have no privacy at all. This isn’t true. There are many tools we can use to secure our information and still have peace of mind. As technology continues to speed forward, sometimes it can feel like we are left in the dust, completely unprepared. But technology can also protect us if we know and are able to use the proper tools to secure our data.

In the end, we don’t need to fear technology. We just need to remember that technology is meant to serve us. As that technology is ever evolving, we need to always be learning how to protect ourselves.

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