Your phones are listening to you, and tracking you, like, all the time
Well, what if you never searched for the things you see in your Facebook ads, and they still pop up right after you had a passionate conversation about that trip to Japan you never did? That's exactly what happened to Vice's Sam Nichols, and it rang a bell. After discussing a much-desired trip to Tokyo in a pub, ads for cheap flights to Japan started popping up in his Facebook sponsored posts. He then went on a quest to deliberately talk about shirts, or sneakers, or university courses around his iPhone, and, sure enough, the sponsored ads started changing with those exact same topics.
Security researchers say that there is nothing abnormal about the fact that phones are always listening. Since they are on alert to hear "OK Google," or "Hey Siri," certain trigger words can be fed in encrypted form to apps that have permission to use them, like Facebook, for instance. The process is rather murky, but it's not that your data is sold directly to advertisers, they just find another way to obtain targeting info. According to Dr. Peter Hannay, a senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk:
Another thing to note is that your handset may be tracking your location by default, too, making a more complete advertising picture for the initiated. On iPhones, for example, a feature called Significant Locations, "allows your iPhone to learn places significant to you in order to provide useful location-related information in Maps, Calendar, Photos, and more," says Apple, adding the "Significant Locations are encrypted and cannot be read by Apple" disclaimer.
Granted, you can turn it all off via Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Significant Locations, and it's probably much less ominous than it sounds, but the fact that you have to constantly whack those tracking moles, for whatever noble reason, is disconcerting nonetheless.