Is Your iPhone Listening to You? And Is Apple Spying on You?

As more Americans use virtual assistants like Siri — and let those assistants listen out for a command like “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” — people have grown more worried about the privacy implications. Is your iPhone listening to you? Is Google spying on you? And what about Facebook? Do its apps eavesdrop on your conversations to figure out which ads to show you? Those seem like reasonable questions. (At least unless you work for Apple, Google, or Facebook.)

Apple told U.S. lawmakers that iPhones don’t listen to users without their consent, according to VentureBeat. The company also claimed that Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps to do so either. But what does that mean for you?

Is your iPhone listening to you?

Apple iPhone5s held in one hand showing its screen with Siri application icons.

Siri on the iPhone | Wachiwit/ iStock Editorial/ Getty Images Plus

Apple recently said that iPhones don’t record audio as the phone listens for Siri wakeup commands, VentureBeat reports. Siri also doesn’t share spoken words. And Apple requires users to explicitly approve microphone access for third-party apps, which also have to display a clear signal that they’re listening. Similarly, Facebook said that it’s not eavesdropping on users: It’s just very good at targeting ads, Quartz reports. (You can revoke Facebook’s access to your phone’s microphone anyway.)

It’s clear that not every app has followed Apple’s rules. And Apple can’t control how apps like Facebook use the data that iPhone owners hand over to them. As VentureBeat reports, Apple explained that it has banned apps from the App Store over privacy violations. However, Apple hasn’t said whether it’s ever banned a developer altogether. And it leaves it up to developers to notify users when an app gets removed for privacy reasons.

Apple says it doesn’t rely on user data, but does it?

Quartz reports that Apple has told lawmakers that its business doesn’t rely on user data (unlike some other companies in Silicon Valley). “Not all technology companies operate in the same manner,” Apple explained. “In fact, the business models and data collection and use practices are often radically different from one another.” But privacy is a product for Apple, and USA Today reports that “A different business model than Facebook and Google gives it some ground to claim a tighter fortress around your data. But that’s not the whole story.”

Apple primarily sells hardware products, unlike Facebook and Google, where users “are the engines that enable the companies to sell advertising,” USA Today explains. Apple insists that it doesn’t gather personal information to sell to advertisers. But iPhones do gather a lot of information, and Apple enables advertisers to target users based on their history in the App Store or the News app, though that data is aggregated with the data of millions of other people. And Apple does sell ads, which appear in the News app and the App Store.

When does your iPhone listen to you?

Man switch on the new iPhone 6 Space Gray holding

Turning on an iPhone | Prykhodov/ iStock/ Getty Images

CNN reports that Apple says that the iPhone “doesn’t listen to consumers except to recognize the clear, unambiguous audio trigger ‘Hey Siri.'” And the company repeated its refrain about user data. “The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertisers,” Apple said.

Lawmakers have raised concerns that your iPhone could collect data from nearby conversations, even if you don’t intentionally wake Siri. But even if Apple, Facebook, and others aren’t literally listening to you — as they’ve repeatedly assured users — you should still feel concerned about your privacy.

The Wall Street Journal reports, “Facebook is now so good at watching what we do online — and even offline, wandering around the physical world — it doesn’t need to hear us.” The publication adds, “Advertising is an important staple of the free internet, but the companies buying and selling ads are turning into stalkers. We need to understand what they’re doing, and what we can — or can’t — do to limit them.”

How can you be sure your iPhone isn’t listening to you?

Quartz reports that if you’re still worried that your iPhone is listening to you, you can opt to stop Siri from listening when you might not want her to. Just open the Settings app, and then tap “Siri & Search.” Then, you’ll want to turn off the toggles for “Listen for ‘Hey Siri,” for “Press [Side or Home] Button for Siri,” and for “Allow Siri When Locked.”

That will keep Siri from listening in on your conversations. But Quartz notes that if you’ve installed any “nefarious apps” that are circumventing Apple’s regulations, there’s no good way to stop that. “You could tape over the microphones on your phone, as many have taken to doing for their laptop webcams,” Quartz reports. “But that would be quite difficult, as there are a few of them in awkward places.”

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