You’re out with friends chatting about a co-worker’s baby shower on Saturday afternoon. By the time you get home, your Facebook feed is showing you ads for diapers. Obviously, your phone is listening to you and showing you targeted advertisements…right?
Why It Doesn’t Make Sense
Most modern smartphones have artificial intelligence capabilities, allowing you to access a virtual assistant or perform certain tasks by speaking commands (like “Hey Siri” or “OK, Google”). In order to trigger these programs, your phone does listen for the designated wake word or phrase. So, in one sense, your phone is listening to you constantly—at least, listening for certain key words.
However, it’s pretty unlikely that your phone is monitoring your conversations for other nefarious or advertising purposes. Facebook emphatically and categorically denies using your phone’s microphone to gather information for the purposes of targeted advertising.
From a practical perspective, if every phone were operating as a 24/7 listening device, the sheer amount of data would be overwhelmingly unmanageable. Not only would this constant operation drain your battery, but it would corral an extraordinary amount of useless content in addition to anything that could be used profitably. Artificial intelligence hasn’t become advanced enough to sift through this kind of content efficiently, so this would require vast numbers of human employees listening to tapes of mostly irrelevant audio. Harvesting, storing, managing, and sorting this kind of data would be a massive, impractical undertaking. On its face, this seems like at best a woefully inefficient way to conduct target marketing (to say nothing of its invasiveness). (For a more detailed by-the-numbers analysis of how unrealistic this task would be, check out this article.)
So What’s Going On?
The phenomenon where you learn or hear some obscure piece of information and soon after encounter the same topic again (often repeatedly) is sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof effect. Although each instance can seem like it’s part of a coordinated plan, generally, these situations are coincidences that you tend to notice more because of their synchronicity. If you’ve very recently discussed something specific (say, remodeling your bathroom), an ad for a new faucet may catch your attention despite being one of dozens or hundreds you see online in a day that might not otherwise stand out at all. Although these coincidences can seem eerily appropriate, think about the amount of data we encounter in a day and don’t find significant or relevant to our interests. Given that enormous amount of information, by sheer chance some of it is going to hit home.
Plus, most of the programs and platforms you use, including Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Google, show you ads based on your interests and other profile information (including the content of your posts, your searches, your “likes,” your interactions with other users, and your direct messages). Their broad data collection policies help them build detailed user profiles, allowing advertisers to target users by age, location, interest, and behaviors, and the platforms use state-of-the-art algorithms to mine users’ data and buying preferences. Google has admitted that it scans messages sent or received through its free email services, though it said in July 2017 it would stop doing so for advertising purposes. Your search history, purchase history, location data, and other online behavior are tracked, monitored, and sold to third-party data consolidators as well as used in-house by the companies that gather that data to create profiles and increase profitability. Google said it has access to "70 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the United States." According to the author of one study, Google has trackers monitoring user behavior on 76 percent of websites; Facebook monitors 23 percent of sites.
As we perform more and more of our daily activities with the assistance of a mobile device, we forget that every keystroke is being recorded and compiled for marketing purposes. So your phone isn’t listening to you…it doesn’t have to.
How to Protect Your Privacy
In the mobile internet age, it’s virtually impossible to completely disconnect. One of the most important steps you can take to protect your information and your devices is to install appropriate, comprehensive anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-malware software and keep it up to date. Using two-factor authentication, creating strong passwords, and keeping your devices physically secure can also help you stay safe and secure. Develop good online habits to protect yourself against malware, viruses, spyware, and scams.
The Dymin technicians can help you choose and install a complete, comprehensive antivirus program on your home or business computers and mobile devices. If you suspect your data may have already been compromised, we can help you repair the problem, restore your systems, and protect yourself going forward. Contact us to schedule an in-home consultation, or visit us in our showroom for expert advice or computer repair and service.