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Here’s how to stop your iPhone from listening to you

Quartz logo Quartz 8/8/2018 Mike Murphy
a hand holding a cellphone © Provided by Quartz

We’ve all heard the (continually refuted) rumors that Facebook’s apps secretly listen to our conversations to figure out what ads to show us.

While Facebook has categorically denied that it’s listening to users (really, it’s just very good at targeting ads), US lawmakers had similar concerns about the devices and services offered by Apple and Google.

Apple sent a response to US representatives Greg Walden, Marsha Blackburn, Gregg Harper, and Robert Latta, Tuesday (Aug. 7), to queries about what its devices were able to listen to and ascertain about its users when they weren’t aware the devices were doing so. The questions followed similar queries raised to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his hearings before Congress in April.

In the letter, which was shared with Quartz, Apple called out that its business is not reliant on customers’ data, unlike some of its Silicon Valley counterparts. “Not all technology companies operate in the same manner—in fact, the business models and data collection and use practices are often radically different from one another,” the company said.

Apple’s letter detailed all the ways users can turn off location tracking, Siri listening (more on that below), and data collected from third-party apps. Although Apple says it builds “technical controls into iOS and iPhone to ensure customer data has strong protections” and analyzes each app that requests permission to be listed on its App Store to ensure they follow Apple’s rules, it cannot always control where information users supply to third-party apps, like Facebook, goes.

“Apple does not and cannot monitor what developers do with the customer data they have collected, or prevent the onward transfer of that data, nor do we have the ability to ensure a developer’s compliance with their own privacy policies or local law,” Apple wrote.

“Apple has the right to terminate a developer’s account immediately upon notice for engaging in prohibited behavior, including but not limited to impermissible uses of user data,” it added.

How to turn off Siri

But if you’re still concerned that Siri might be tuning in when you don’t want her to, here’s how to turn the digital assistant off:

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Tap Siri & Search
  3. Turn off the toggles for “Listen for ‘Hey Siri,'” “Press [Side or Home] Button for Siri,” and “Allow Siri When Locked”

This will turn off Siri, but if there are nefarious apps out there, circumventing Apple’s regulations that say developers have to make it clear when their apps are listening to users, there’s no real way to stop that. You could tape over the microphones on your phone, as many have taken to doing for their laptop webcams. But that would be quite difficult, as there are a few of them in awkward places.

How to turn off location tracking

Apple’s iPhones use a combination of GPS, cellular towers, and nearby wifi hotspots to figure out where you are, and apps are supposed to only have access to this information if you’ve explicitly given them permission.

If you want to ensure no third-party apps are tracking your location when you don’t want them to be, head to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, and turn off the green toggle. But be warned: This will mean that services that require your location to work properly, like Uber or weather apps, won’t be able to do so.

On that same screen, you can turn off location tracking for individual apps, too. So instead of turning off all tracking, you can turn off certain apps you’d prefer didn’t know where you were at all times.

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