Is your phone listening to you?

It’s no secret that tech companies are tracking user data to better improve targeting strategies with reports that the Department of Homeland Security spent millions to buy cellphone location information from companies. But it’s still unclear what those companies and the government are tracking and how.

For NewsNation’s special series Surveillance State, NewsNation investigated how tech companies are collecting data from phones and other devices, and whether phones are actually listening to conversations.

Serge Egelman, a data privacy researcher and director from the University of California, Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, said that technology is not necessarily listening to its users.

“It is and it isn’t,” Egelman said. “This is one of those conspiracy theories that refuses to die. In terms of your phone recording your conversations 24/7, that is absolutely not a thing.”

He said that phones, laptops and tablets are being used to collect data but not necessarily listen to everything people say.

Technology users see content based on an educated guess through data tracking. Companies use that data for their own marketing purposes — and sometimes worse, to sell that information for profit.

“Collecting lots of information about what you do online, the websites you visit, what you do on your mobile device, what you watch on television. All these devices share data about what you are doing in your life,” Egelman said.

Egelman shared a few safeguards users can apply to protect their privacy:

  • Under iPhone’s Settings –> Privacy –> Tracking –> Turn off “Allow Apps to Request to Track”
    • This action prevents phone apps from taking information about users and sharing it with other sites and apps.
  • Under iPhone’s Settings –> Privacy –> Location Services –> System Services –> Significant Locations (Toggle Off)
    • “Significant Locations” allows apps to see the record of where you’ve been. Turn this action off to better protect your privacy.
  • Under Android Settings –> Location
    • Users can turn their location off by hitting “Use location off,” or they can limit permissions by tapping “App location permissions.”

“The thing that most people don’t expect is that when you are using an app that has nothing to do with location, it’s possible it’s capturing location data when you are not using it,” Egelman said.

Another way to look at the data apps collect from users is to check out an app’s privacy policy before downloading the app in the Apple App Store. The New York Times broke down how to understand Apple’s three privacy categories, explaining that apps warn users of the data tracking used before people decide to download the apps to their phones.

Egelman said the industry is largely unregulated — a subject he spoke to Congress about in May. But he said the best way to stop data leaks and sharing is for the companies to step up or the law to step in.

The information shared by companies from your devices can be used in all sorts of ways beyond just getting targeted ads on an Instagram feed. Companies may seek the data when doing background checks on new employees. That data can also determine your creditworthiness or prevent users from getting accepted into college.

Egelman said it shouldn’t be up to the people to find ways to protect their privacy but up to the companies who are using it in their own special interests.

This is part of a NewsNation exclusive series covering increased surveillance and data-gathering through technology and by the government.