Do our phones really eavesdrop? Claims of snooping tech giants put to the test

This story was first published in October 2019.

It's not uncommon for smartphone users to talk about a topic - only to find their Facebook feed subsequently dotted with advertisements for that very thing.

Social media companies have been accused of breaching user privacy with repeated allegations of apps using mobile microphones to eavesdrop on conversations, targeting users with relevant, tailored advertisements. 

As CBS News reports, UK journalist and producer Yvette Shapiro believes her phone has clearly "listened" to her conversations. 

On a recent family vacation in Virginia, Shapiro and her husband were discussing how comfortable their mattress was. Yvette claims a string of mattress adverts subsequently appeared on her Facebook feed.

"I said to my husband, 'Our phone is listening to us'," she told CBS.

"I find that a little invasive, a bit creepy and certainly unwelcome."

Shapiro's claims follow a long-standing string of similar accusations online, with many alleging they are victims of social media companies "eavesdropping" on their personal conversations.

"Way too many times have ads popped up after being casually mentioned and never Googled," wrote Twitter user Logan Rush.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 35, shot down the suggestion when he testified before Congress last year.

"Yes or no, does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?" asked US Senator Gary Peters in 2018.

"No," Zuckerberg firmly responded.

London-based mobile security firm Wandera put mobile devices to the test, conducting a three-day experiment by playing pet-food commercials for 30 minutes with a smartphone in the room. They left another cellphone in a silent room next door.

"We weren't able to discern any noticeable difference," said Wandera CEO, Eldar Tuvey.

Tuvey believes our online activity reveals more to tech giants than we realise.

"Advertising algorithms can figure [it] out exactly, through the searches that we do, what we're interested in, and then they target those adverts to us," he told CBS. 

Yet people like Shapiro are still not convinced by the evidence that proves otherwise.

"I don't see why they wouldn't be doing this," she said. 

"It's such an obvious money-maker."

Whether suspicion or fact, the long-standing claims are unlikely to keep people off their smartphones.

CBS News / Newshub.