The Time My Phone Spied On Me

Moments before Thanskgiving Dinner this year, I almost threw my phone across the room with the intent of shattering it into a million tiny pieces.

Earlier that day, I’d been having a conversation in our living room about carpet cleaning while the baby was doing some tummy time. The rest of the morning was a whirlwind of running a 5k, showering, and getting the baby ready and out the door to be with family, so when I had a moment to sit down, I decided to check Instagram (instead of watching football). As I scrolled through my feed, I saw an ad. Not unusual, but this was an ad for a carpet cleaning service.

Between all the craziness of the morning, I hadn’t had a chance to search online for carpet cleaning services, nor was I particularly interested- what I had said was “It probably wouldn’t hurt to buy some carpet cleaner.”

My kneejerk reaction was to destroy my phone (I have a serious distrust of robots/A.I. on a good day). Instead, I was informed by someone that I simply had to turn my microphone off for certain apps (the same ad appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, but I assume that was because Instagram and Facebook are connected). Anyway, it turns out that on iPhones, you have to go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone, and see what Apps have Microphone on. It turns out, I had both Facebook and Instagram on, as well as Snapchat.

Facebook vehemently denies that it uses our microphones to listen to us. Well, what they actually said was “…it would only use the microphone on someone’s cell if the app had permission to do so and if the user was engaging in a microphone-specific activity.” In this post from Marketing Land, Facebook addresses allegations that it was using the microphone to target ads, which they continue to deny (I haven’t found anything mentioning whether Instagram might be listening, though…).

To be fair, you have to give these apps permission to use your microphone, so it’s not like it happened without an opt-in. The tricky part is, certain features of these apps require microphone use to use, and it doesn’t disclose any other stuff that the microphone could be used for.

For instance, I allowed Facebook to have microphone access because in order to record a live video from your phone, you obviously need to utilize the microphone so people can hear you (unless, for some reason, you’re doing a “silent film” style live broadcast). On Instagram, if you want to do Stories (the little 24 hour posts), you have to enable both camera and microphone access.

Now, I’m not opposed to giving these apps permission to use my microphone so I can record video or posts of my child hiccupping that are probably only endearing to me personally, but it would be nice to know what exactly this permission entails (like, trying to get me to hire a certain carpet cleaning service, which may actually work, but that’s besides the point).

Moral of the story: read the fine print, and if there is no fine print, maybe think long and hard about what you might be giving permission for. This could all be paranoia/speculation, but regardless, it was fairly creepy.

Check out our related post, Is your phone listening to you? for additional slightly creepy info.