Why We Think Our Phones Are Secretly Listening to Us

A developer explains the computational complexity of Facebook listening in

Simon Pitt
Debugger
Published in
8 min readAug 7, 2020

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Photo: Morning Brew/Unsplash

Months ago, before lock-down started, I had a friend round for dinner. He was on the keto diet; a high-fat, low-carb regime, mainly consisting of meat and cheese. Also fine, he told me, are Shirataki Noodles. I didn’t know what to cook. Shirataki Noodles were not a helpful suggestion.

Another guest was a vegan, so meat, fish, eggs, and cheese were out. I found myself mumbling dark comments about the keto diet. In the end, we went out to a restaurant.

Later that evening, as I scrolled through Twitter an ad popped up for the keto diet. I’d never shown the remotest interest in dieting before, and my mind raced. Were Facebook and Twitter secretly listening to my conversations? I pictured Zuckerberg with a headphone-clad, Gene Hackman-like figure in the shadows, identifying ads to push to me.

Phones have ears and laptops have eyes

So, to come straight out with it: No. Our phones are not secretly listening to us. There are lots of ways we know Twitter and Facebook can’t do this. When a developer writes an app for iOS it runs on the Apple-controlled operating system. Facebook can’t just access the microphone and start recording. The app has to go through code written by Apple. When Facebook requests audio, Apple asks the user whether they want “Facebook” accessing the microphone. If they do, it sends an audio stream to Facebook. If they don’t, it doesn’t. Apple’s code is a software bouncer: If an app doesn’t have an invitation from the user, it ain’t getting in.

“And more” covers a multitude of sins. The Facebook app running on iOS

When an app uses the microphone, a bar appears at the top of the screen. There was no bar at the top of my screen when I was moaning about my keto friend. But still, I feel…

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Simon Pitt
Debugger

Media techie, software person, and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk