Is Google Listening to You? Yes, and Here’s How to Stop It
Have you ever seen ads pop up on websites and social media feeds about something you’ve just talked about? I have, countless times, and it creeps me out every time. If you’ve never experienced this, you’re in for some shocking news.
Google may or may not be listening to you if you’ve got an iPhone, but if you use an Android, it’s almost definitely listening to you. This is because Google Assistant responds to your voice commands. This is incredibly convenient, but means your phone is listening to you so it knows when to respond.
In other words, you can kind of take for granted that Google is listening to you. The bigger questions are how much it listens to you, and what it does with this information. Keep reading to find out and learn how you can stop the tech giant from eavesdropping on your personal conversations.
Why Is Your Phone Listening to You?
According to phone manufacturers, your phone primarily listens to you so voice assistants like Google Assistant can carry out verbal commands. For this to work, your phone has to be listening, or it won’t respond when you say “Hey Google.” This isn’t the only reason, though.
Sadly, there’s also a profit angle here. Our phones listen to us because Android, which is owned by Google, uses this information to build customer marketing profiles and show us relevant ads. Just like Google tracks your search history, it collects your voice data to personalize ads to your interests. This helps advertisers make more money, but it’s a major privacy concern for many people, and with good reason.
The Risks of Being Overheard
You can’t trust anyone with your privacy. Although companies might promise to not misuse your data, someone could steal it from them. Cybercriminals can use your sensitive data to stalk, blackmail, or scam you and unleash all sorts of mayhem.
Additionally, governments can compel companies to hand over your data to them, giving them even more power and visibility into people’s lives. In some countries, this could lead to people being persecuted for saying things they don’t agree with.
Is It Legal for Google to Listen to You?
Google has faced plenty of lawsuits where plaintiffs have accused it of illegally listening to users. These recordings aren’t as private as you’d like to hope, either. In 2019, a whistleblower revealed that Google gave contractors access to its voice recordings. These even included accidental recordings containing sensitive or revealing information. According to the company, it shares a small percentage of recordings with contractors to help improve its services.
While that sounds like a poor excuse, Google usually manages to sidestep any kickback from scandals like this because of its fine print. It’s illegal for apps to listen to you without your consent, but you technically consent to it when you accept Google’s terms and conditions. This makes it legal for the company to listen to you through your phone.
That said, any app can listen to you illegally if it has access to your microphone. This usually happens when you download fake apps (spyware) or an outdated app is infected with malware. To minimize the risk of apps spying on you, it’s best to review permissions for all your apps and remove microphone access for apps that don’t need it. You can also change your permission settings to allow microphone access only when you’re using an app.
Is Google Always Listening?
If it’s legal for Google to listen to you, then is it doing it all the time? To put it shortly, yes. Your phone is technically always listening. Google Assistant is always active so it can pick up the ‘wake words’ it’s programmed to recognize and start carrying out voice commands.
This doesn’t mean Google ignores everything else you say. It may also be on the lookout for other “keywords” it can use to improve your marketing profile. This is why you see ads about things you talk about even though you haven’t searched for them on your phone.
Google’s eavesdropping is less of a problem if you’re an iPhone user because it doesn’t have a monopoly over data on Apple devices. That said, Apple isn’t a saint either. It has also faced lawsuits for illegally recording people with Siri.
Big tech companies will argue it’s just improving your online shopping experience, but it’s still a huge privacy concern. You can’t trust strangers with everything you say every day, never mind a company that’s able to make money off it. As if that wasn’t worrying enough, it gets worse: This also means a cybercriminal could listen to your phone’s recordings if they hack into your Google account or steal them from Google’s servers in a data breach.
Where to Find Your Google Recordings
Google lets you hear and delete the conversations you’ve had with Google Assistant — even the ones you might not have realized you had. You can access these voice recordings through your account. You can find them in the Google app on your phone or the My Activity page on your Google Account in a web browser.
How to Find Your Google Recordings On a Browser
- Go to the Google My Activity page and click on Web & App Activity.
- On the Web & App Activity page, click on Manage all Web & App Activity.
- Click on Filter by date & product.
- Select Assistant, then Sound Search, and click Apply.
- This filter will bring up all your voice activity with Google. All entries with a voice recording will have a microphone icon next to it. You can click on Details to see when it was recorded, or use View recording to listen to it. Clicking on the X button to the right of the recording will delete it.
How to Find Your Google Recordings on Your Phone App
- Open the Google app, click your profile icon at the top, and select Manage Your Google Account.
- From the menu bar at the top, tap Data & Privacy and then select Web & App Activity.
- On the Web & App Activity page, tap Manage all Web & App Activity.
- Scroll down, select Filter by date & product, then select Assistant and Sound Search for it to show all the voice recordings associated with this account.
- You’ll see a list of all your voice activity with Google. All entries with a voice recording will have a microphone icon next to it. Tap Details to see when an entry was recorded, and you can use View recording to listen to it. Tapping the X button to the right of the recording will delete it.
How to Stop Google from Listening to You — A Step-by-Step Guide
You can take several steps to stop Google from listening in on your conversations. To start with, you can tell Google not to record any voice and audio activity. Go to the Web & App Activity page and uncheck the box next to Include voice and audio activity.
If you turn off this setting, your phone won’t save audio inputs from Google Assistant, Search, and Maps. Does this stop other apps from listening to you, though? No.
You can’t trust anyone with your privacy and may want to take even more steps to ensure no one listens to you without your permission. A safer approach is to remove microphone access for all applications that don’t need it and to deactivate virtual assistants.
How to Stop Google from Listening to You on Android
Turn Off Google Assistant
The first step is to disable Google Assistant across Google Search, Maps, and Android Auto apps. Turning it off is a simple process, but this may differ slightly from one phone brand to another.
- Head to the Google Assistant settings in your Android device’s settings app — you can also search for “assistant settings” and it should pop up.
- Search for the General option in the settings app and select it.
- Toggle the switch to turn off Google Assistant.
Follow the same steps but with Android Auto settings to make sure Google Assistant doesn’t activate itself when you’re using Maps or Android Auto. Under General settings, click on ‘Hey Google’ detection and make sure both Hey Google and While driving is toggled off.
Remove Microphone Permissions from Apps
You can disable microphone access for any apps that don’t need it. For instance, I only let apps like Phone, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Shazam access the microphone. I don’t need Facebook, Instagram, and Google to have microphone access. You can also change the settings to only let these apps access the mic when you’re using them if you don’t want to turn it off entirely.
Follow these steps to remove microphone permissions from specific apps:
- Open your phone’s settings app and select Apps.
- From the apps list, find Google (or any app you want) and select it.
- Tap Permissions.
- Select the microphone option.
- Choose between Allow all the time, Allow only while using the app, Ask every time, or Don’t Allow. If you pick Don’t Allow, you’ll see a prompt that the app may not function properly with this setting which you’ll have to accept.
If you have the time, I’d suggest you go through all the apps on your phone and repeat these steps. This will close potential loopholes Google and other tech companies can use to listen to you.
How to Stop Your iPhone From Listening to You
Google doesn’t have the same kind of control over your data on iOS devices and, depending on which Google apps you use, it may not be listening to everything you’re saying. That said, iOS devices still have Siri and it’s similarly listening to you all the time. Here’s how to stop Siri and Google from recording you on Apple devices:
- Navigate to Settings and select Siri & Search
- Tap the toggles to turn off Listen for ‘Hey Siri’, Press Side button for Siri, and Allow Siri When Locked.
- A pop-up will appear asking if you want to turn Siri off. Tap Turn Off Siri to confirm.
Disable Recordings for Google and Other Apps
You’ll also need to deny microphone access for the Google app and any other app that doesn’t need it. Here’s how to do it:
- Open Settings on your iPhone
- Go to Privacy & Security
- Scroll down and select Microphone
- Turn off the permissions for Google, Google Assistant (if you have installed it), Google Maps, and all other apps you don’t want to access your microphone.
Taking these measures should help to stop Google and other apps from listening to you on your phone whether it’s an Android or iPhone. Let’s confirm this with a little test.
Check If Your Phone Is Listening to You
Here’s how to check whether your phone is listening to your conversations:
- Pick a product: Think of something you don’t really want to buy and haven’t searched for online so it shouldn’t be on your marketing profile. You could try to confirm whether the brand runs ads using a different device not linked to your account or on your Wi-Fi. It would take time and testing, though, which might be more effort than you’re willing to put in.
- Talk about the brand and its products near your phone: Without opening Google, start mentioning the brand name and its products within earshot of your phone.
- Observe the ads you see: After you’ve been talking about the brand for a few days, observe the ads you’re shown on websites and social media. If you start seeing related ads for the product, your phone is listening to you. Alternatively, you can also visit adssettings.google.com to see what Google thinks you’re interested in.
Privacy Tips to Protect Your Data on Smartphones
You can take additional steps to protect your privacy on smartphones and other devices. Use a proactive approach to privacy to keep data-hungry companies and bad actors at bay. Consider adopting these privacy protection tips to help keep your data safe from big tech companies and third parties, including cybercriminals.
- Download verified apps only: Only download apps from official app stores like the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. They have verification measures to ensure all apps meet security and privacy standards.
- Keep your phone updated: Software updates often include security patches that can help protect your phone from malware.
- Delete apps you don’t use: Unused apps still collect your data and can provide a gateway for malware if they contain any security vulnerabilities. Remove the apps you don’t use to reduce the chances of third parties secretly listening to you.
- Check app permissions: When you install an app, you’ll be asked to grant it certain permissions. These permissions allow it to access features like your phone’s contacts, location, and microphone. Only grant permissions to apps you trust.
- Delete your voice request history: Google keeps a record of your voice requests, such as when you use voice search. This data can be used to track your activities. Delete your voice request history regularly. Follow the guide above to find out how.
- Delete your search history regularly: Your search history tells Google a lot about you. It’s best to delete it every week or month to keep it from being exploited.
- Use a VPN: A VPN encrypts your traffic so third parties can’t tell what you’re doing online. This protects your privacy and keeps your devices safe from snoopers. PIA VPN comes with an added “MACE” feature that blocks ads and prevents trackers and websites from accessing your data unless you log in.
If you’ve granted it access to your microphone and Google Assistant is active, Google is probably listening to you all the time. This is because it needs to know when to respond to a voice command whenever you say a wake word like “Hey Google.” The downside is it also uses your audio data to learn what products you’re interested in to show you relevant ads.
Try talking about a brand or product you wouldn’t otherwise buy near your phone. Google will likely pick up what you’re talking about. If it starts showing you ads related to that product, it means Google is listening to you.
Use our guide to deactivate Google Assistant and remove microphone permissions from all Google apps on your phone. This will stop Google from listening to you directly. It may still listen to you through other apps, so I recommend removing microphone permissions from all other apps that you don’t use your mic on.
Notice: Undefined index: screen_reader_text in /var/www/blog/wp-content/themes/privacynews/functions.php on line 595