You’re scrolling through your social media feed or cruising your favorite website when there it is — staring back at you, an advertisement for that obscure item you just casually mentioned in conversation with a friend. You didn’t Google search it, or even write about it in a text. While the tech giants claim they don’t do it, the suspicion that your cell phone and smart devices eavesdrop on you has become common online chatter, prompting countless tweets and lengthy Facebook posts.
Well, most of the social media giants like Facebook Twitter and Instagram will point to their computer algorithms being able to predict with astonishing accuracy what you’re likely to be thinking or talking about. If you’ve used any of these social media services for any amount of time it’s really scary how they’re able to guess at the topics that you’re thinking about even without listening in on your verbal conversations and based on my research it looks as if people tend to underestimate the degree to which their online activities are being monitored.
Another possibility of course is that they are, in fact, listening to you. And there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any reason that they couldn’t do that. And I’m unaware of any reason that would prevent them from doing that. At least any legal or regulatory reasons. The technology certainly exists — increasingly popular virtual assistant devices are always listening in, waiting for verbal cues. Amazon Echo has even had problems with accidentally ordering items it overhears on people’s TV’s. Be that as it may, the industry and experts are hesitant to confirm these devices are listening to us beyond their intended purpose.
Facebook insists it does not eavesdrop on user conversations in order to target them for ads or content, according to an online statement they posted in 2016. They claim that they show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what they are talking out loud about. Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp) – all combined having a total of almost 4 billion users – says it only accesses a device’s microphone if the user has granted its app permission, and “if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio
Google, on the other hand, admits it scans your emails, though promised to stop doing so for advertising purposes. In July 2017, they said it would stop reading over its 1.2 billion users’ emails for the purpose of advertising “ which they are intending to implement later in 2018.”
While the industry insists it does not listen to you without your permission, that doesn’t mean it isn’t using a host of tools to figure out the best ad that will make you click to see more. Your online search and purchase history are among your habits that can be used to create that profile. Many people don’t realize that their clickstream path is actually extremely informative of the thought processes that are going on in your mind. The teach giants like Google and Facebook are able to collate billions of users interests group it into similar habits and use predictive algorithms along with Artificial Intelligence to help figure out what you might like next.
All of these voice-activated devices listen to you to some degree. It’s really unknown how much of that is being recorded and transcribed and stored and used for ad-serving purposes. I predict that products and services providing people the ability to hide their activity will become big business in the next 5-10 years. Until then, embracing technology means giving in to this customized advertising experience. How much privacy are you willing to trade for convenience, is really I think the big question here.