Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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If smartphone is spying on us, it’s getting an earful

My friends Christian and Yuki educated me about the rumor that our smartphones and even televisions can spy on us on behalf of marketers or counterterrorism agencies. The theory goes that companies create programs that will activate your phone’s or television’s microphone in order to capture “utterances” – words you say in general conversation, when you aren’t actually commanding Google, Siri, or what-have-you. Then, they can better target ads to sell you things or see if you’re a terror risk.

Yuki and Chrsitian. Photo courtesy: Ryan Sakamoto (

Here’s a recent article from the BBC:

If agencies are spying on us for terrorism monitoring or if marketers are spying on us to sell us things, both will be sorely disappointed. We’re a boring, law-observing, politically-mainstream bunch, and we’re also not easily swayed by advertisements.

It’s a creepy idea, but we have nothing to fear. Nobody in this house is the second coming of Boko Haram.

A little while after this conversation, Yuki’s phone was targeted with ads for hypnosis; I’d been talking about booking with my friend Brent Koffman at Body & Mind to see if hypnosis could combat insomnia. It’s only something I brought up verbally, Yuki had not typed the words into her phone or computer, nor had I e-mailed her about it.

With Yuki-Dookie.

Coincidence, or spying? According to that BBC article, “The major tech firms absolutely reject such an idea.” But we thought it was odd.

So just to be sure, I grabbed Christian’s phone and started uttering randomly weird or obscene phrases into it to see if it was secretly capturing my voice. Not to be outdone for potential humiliation, he did the same to my phone.

Christian and me.

If I start getting pitched for a Talking Heads album compilation, I’ll know it heard him yelling about “sand in the Vaseline.” Then we’ll know we have to take future top secret conversations to a place with no tech gadgets.

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