Is Your Smart Phone Spying on You?

March 12, 2024

How often has a friend, coworker or family member introduced you to something for the first time…only for it to show up on your Instagram and Facebook feeds next time you log in?

It’s a popular theory that smart phones are covertly listening in on our conversations to target ads and personalize our online experiences. More than half of Americans, and 60% of Millennials in general, believe that their devices are eavesdropping on them at least some of the time.

In a quickly-deleted blog post, Cox Media Group just confirmed your worst fears.

The deleted Cox Media Group blog post titled “It’s True. Your Devices Are Listening to You” sparked a significant uproar concerning online privacy and ad targeting practices.

The post allegedly boasted about CMG’s “Active Listening” technology, which claimed to analyze anonymized audio data from smartphones and smart speakers to understand users’ needs and preferences. This was then used to target them with highly personalized ads based on conversations around specific products or services.

What exactly is Active Listening? The technology is allegedly meant to target “pre-purchase conversations,” by illicitly activating the microphone on phones and other devices. Then artificial intelligence determines what key phrases advertisers want to hear. Like all artificial intelligence, this technology will become more accurate and even smarter as it acquires more data.

The post was framed as a breakthrough marketing guide for potential companies who wanted to buy and track that user data, helping reaching new and local business.

The blog post immediately ignited concerns about privacy invasion and lack of transparency regarding data collection practices. Aside from the clear potential for unintended (and unwanted) eavesdropping, critics also questioned how anonymous Active Listening keeps the user, as well as everyone’s consent in the process. Just because you might want your phone to listen in on your conversations, doesn’t mean that your friend wants to be recorded!

Ethical implications aside, therein also lies concerns about how these recordings might be misused.

In response, Cox Media Group quickly removed the blog post and issued a statement denying that they listen to or process any individual’s conversations. They clarified that their advertising solutions rely solely on aggregated and anonymized data sets sourced from third parties, not direct audio monitoring.

However, the deleted post’s content and the lack of clear prior communication about data collection methods, have left the public unsure and very concerned. Indeed, the very idea of Active Listening technology raises questions about the future of user privacy when it comes up against the private sector.

So is your phone really listening to your conversations? It’s extremely possible! From the looks of technology like Cox Media Group denies having, the capability already exists. It’s a matter of navigating the legal and ethical landscapes, as this will determine what data privacy legislation and consent options come about in the future.

Nothing is set in stone! We still have data privacy laws in place which guarantee our right to anonymity and security online. As long as that’s true, you can rest easier about your data privacy.

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