Watch out, your Smartphone may be listening

tamrawilson Uncategorized

I know this sounds crazy, but I’m convinced that my Smartphone is a two-way listening device.

I saw an intriguing interview a few months ago. News anchor and technology reporter Brett Larson discussed how smartphone apps are programmed to listen to their owners whenever the phone is turned on.

Tech industry leaders deny that such capability exists. I believed them too until a few days later when my son and daughter-in-law showed me a hard-shell suitcase they had just purchased. My phone was “on”, as it usually is, and we were talking about that suitcase with the eye-catching tropical palm-leaf design.

The next day my Instagram feed showed me an ad for a pink hard-shelled suitcase and in the photo—as if added for my benefit—was an image of a palm leaf. I know I didn’t’ imagine it because I made a screenshot of the image. It’s still in my photo archive.


I know Smartphones are programmed to “help” you find merchandise you may be interested in. It’s a marketing thing. I get that. What I don’t get is how the phone heard our conversation. I never keyed in suitcases or palm leaves. I know this sounds wacky, but it appears my phone knew about the conversation because it “heard” it. It had the “smarts” to translate that chatter to direct us to a retailer who could sell me a suitcase like the one I was talking about in the privacy of my own living room.

We don’t live in a private world anymore. Anyone who has ever traveled by air knows that. TSA notwithstanding, we have willingly given up private matters that even our parents would have found shocking 20 years ago. The attacks on 9-11 prompted us to willingly stand for full-body scans, have agents rifle through our baggage, quiz us about artificial joints and to remove our shoes and the contents of our pockets.

The suitcase incident does raise questions. Who knows what “permissions” lurk within the fine print of those license agreements we agree to whenever we open Facebook for the first time? What are we signing up for when our Smartphone asks to access the microphone functions?  What are we allowing when we download a new app?

The over-reach of technology and what we allow it to probe into our lives is creepy at best. Smartphones and their eavesdropping cousins, smart tower “Alexa” or “Echo” are eavesdropping. I don’t own such a tower nor do I plan to buy one. The idea of a listening device  hidden in plain sight, is a frill I don’t need, and I suspect, you don’t either. If I need to turn on my security system or adjust the thermostat, I can do it myself. And if I need to know the distance between Earth and Mars, I can look that up without a smart tower.

A few years ago when we had purchased a new vehicle, it came with OnStar, GM’s subscription service for navigation, communications, diagnostics and emergency services. We had not fully activated the service, and one night I remember driving down Startown Road. When I adjusted the rear-view mirror, a woman’s voice began talking about my “emergency.”  I was so startled I could have hit the ditch.

The mystery voice belonged to the “OnStar lady” who had been summoned when I mistakenly pressed a button on the rear-view mirror. She insisted that I immediately set up the system, demanding my email address and phone number.

When I buy a new vehicle, I yearn for the old days when a customer signed the papers, shook hands with the salesman and drove off the lot. Things were simple. New auto owners didn’t have to learn how to set computers, clocks and other gadgets or pay for a pricey subscription.

There’s something unsettling about driving a car that’s being monitored by a computer system that tells me things I should know—that the oil needs changing or that my air bag has deployed. Or that my vehicle is under warranty.

The pitch is that I should feel less anxious with a remote entity following my every move. In  case of an emergency, OnStar will dispatch help right away.

What they’re forgetting are all the other drivers with cellphones who want to be first to call 911 or Tweet news of my mishap. Or those who will post photos on Instagram and Facebook.

Or my cellphone that, armed with the proper app, has been listening all along.