RADIO INTERVIEW: Is your phone listening to you?


The Following is a conversation between Ben Steele and Brett Birks, which first aired on BBC Radio WM on the 7th of September, 2023.

Brett Birks, BBC Radio WM, 7th September 2023

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Have you ever thought that appliances might just be spying on you? New research by Which? finds that certain household technologies such as a doorbell, smart speakers and even washing machines might be gathering a little more data than is actually needed. Ben Steele is a content creator at The Big Phone Store and we can cross to him now. Ben, welcome to BBC Radio WM.

Hello, Bret. How are you?

I’m well, thanks, mate, although I think the air conditioning is going down in this studio that I’m in, so I hope it’s cooler where you are than it is where I am at the moment. But Ben, listen, this story grabbed my attention. I gave the analogy earlier –  I was talking to a colleague the other day considering getting a dishwasher for my new house. And when I got home that night, I went on the web browser on my mobile phone and advert after advert was for dishwashers. And I had not searched for anything. Ben, is my phone listening to me?

Well, kind of is the answer to that. It’s weird that you called me to talk about this, actually, because only recently I was thinking about going to this gaming festival that’s in Birmingham this weekend, and just by talking about it with my friends who are going to this, I’ve just started getting a whole bunch of adverts for it on YouTube. Yes, it’s eerie and creepy. 

When it comes to phones, anyway, and targeted ads on the whole, it’s not so much that they’re listening. Targeted ads work in a few different eerie ways. With Google, for example, they know how we’re scrolling through our phones when we stop, how long we’re stopping for, what articles we might be looking at. Even if we’re not necessarily clicking on them, they get the data of how we’re scrolling on it. So that’s a bit creepy. But it gets even creepier when you get to things like Facebook, because they’re not listening to you, but they are tracking, say for example, when you meet your friend and you speak to them about how you’ve just been married and you hired this company to make the cake for the wedding. A day later, you’ll see that advert about that cake company. It’s not because… well, Facebook didn’t listen, but they had a pretty good idea. That’s because you met your friend and they recently posted about how good a company the cake making place was. And they also liked their Facebook page. Chances are that friend probably spoke to you about it and it just popped onto your feed for you to stumble across. 

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? And it’s a little worrying. I understand if I’m using a search engine, and I’m searching for a particular brand or item and that data is collated, I get that. But when I’m not even physically searching for anything, and effectively it’s my voice and what I’m talking about that’s been picked up on… and this research by Which? is talking about not just mobile phones and tablets, but smart speakers, doorbells, washing machines gathering data. My washing machines about 20 years old, mate. Are there smart washing machines now as well?

Yeah, well, with the smart speakers in terms of listening to us, smart speakers are really big and bad on this. People like Amazon, they don’t sugarcoat that they do it as well. They just kind of hide it in their T’s and C’s. Smart speakers do have a setting on them that allows you to toggle if you want targeted ads on Alexa, or stuff like that, which is then basically saying: we are listening to Buzzwords, but if you want that off, you can. They don’t listen to you all the time. I think there’s a limit on how much they can, but even then it’s still a bit shifty. And with things like washing machines as well, the only reason I can think that they are tracking you is because a lot of appliances, they pair up with your phone, they pair up with your smartphone. And a lot of them, for whatever reason, for LG in particular, they ask for the name, the date of birth, the email, and things like the phone contact book and the precise location and phone number, which is OD. I think that’s because maybe while you’re out, your phone can then say, I’ll put it on for an hour and a half away. 

I don’t have one of those, but I’m thinking, I certainly don’t need it now, but I’ve got the central you know, you can operate it from your phone from afar. But is there any argument that this could be in some way construed as some sort of invasion of privacy? If I’m talking in confidence to you, Ben, we’re out in the pub having a pint and then my phone’s listening, and all of a sudden adverts are being tailored to something we’ve discussed in confidence, in our private conversation, surely there’s an invasion of privacy argument there. 

Well, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of weird ways for ads to target us, like I said, with the scrolling and with location tracking search history, and there’s times that we notice this when we’re heavily invested in the thing that we’re considering buying. But when it pops up, it is weird. And you do feel like you have been robbed of some privacy. There are ways for you to beat this algorithm, this creepy algorithm. There’s things where you can turn it off, block it entirely within your settings, and there’s also things like VPNs, which are virtual private networks that kind of stop companies like that from getting to your data. But it depends on what you think of it, really. There are many ways to protect your data if you find all this very creepy. Otherwise, if not, you’ll just be getting suggested things to buy that you probably want to buy. 

I’ll tell you one thing, Ben, it’s bad enough if my phone is listening to what I’m saying – it’s a good job it can’t read my mind. 

Well, again, that’s why algorithm’s so dangerous, isn’t it? Because even when you’re just thinking of buying something, it’s trying to think what your mind might like. It’s a very eerie time that we live in.

1984 is here, isn’t it? Listen, Ben, fascinating talking to you.I really appreciate it. And hopefully – I’m going to check my phone when I get home – and nothing we’ve talked about has been tailored. I’m not going to get adverts for the Big Phone Store am I?

Maybe, maybe!

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