Is it really possible that our phones are listening to us and recording our data to personalize targeted ads online? This question has been trending all over the Internet, and has generated a ton of recent media attention — and for a good reason!

We’ve all been there! You’re having a casual conversation with a friend about potentially planning an all-inclusive vacation to Mexico. You both agree it isn’t feasible within the next year, so you leave it at that. Later that night, you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed and you notice something strange. Without even looking up any details on flights or resorts, you scroll past an ad that reads “Deals on All-Inclusive Mexican Getaways!” You immediately feel unsettled and violated. There’s no way Facebook could have known about your conversation — unless it was listening to you!

Interestingly enough, nearly every individual has a similar version of this story! While we can’t 100% disprove this theory, there is an alternative explanation that is worth considering.

Targeted advertising

We understand the appeal of this theory, especially when the ads you see are so specific. However, Facebook doesn’t need to eavesdrop on your conversations to know what you’re thinking. There are many other ways to accurately predict your behaviour online. The culprit responsible for this theory, is a not-so-secret weapon we use in the digital marketing world called targeted advertising.

What is targeted advertising?

Targeted advertising is the method of directing online ads toward audiences with specific key character traits. The audiences are customized based on the product or service the advertiser is trying to promote. These traits typically include an individual’s demographics, psychographics, interests, and can even include their recent activity online.

How does it work?

Many popular online platforms learn about your preferences through thousands of data points. They use information such as your location, purchase history, what you’ve researched online, and who your friends are. All of this information is used to help online tech analysts make predictions about you and your potential buying habits.

targeted ad

Why is targeted advertising so effective?

The fact of the matter is, you are much easier to trace, and your actions are increasingly easier to predict than you think. Even with data protection regulations, algorithms used for targeted advertising are still effectively tracking and predicting your behaviour. Advanced marketing intelligence analysts have recently stated that the average person is exposed to 5,000 ads a day. Other online marketing experts say that’s on the lower end of the scale. For high media consumers, the exposure can be as high as 10,000 ads a day. With so many opportunities to target you, if your phone really is listening; every ad you see online would be targeted towards almost everything you say.

Phone surveillance for advertising

In many cases, cybersecurity experts have failed to find sufficient evidence that Facebook and Google are eavesdropping on users to target ads more effectively. Their researchers have performed network traffic analysis tests to look for any audio data being sent to Facebook. In concluding this research, they found no evidence to suggest this was happening.

Arguments against It

Cloudflare CEO, Matthew Prince has recently stated that, “If Facebook were harvesting all that audio, it would be a gargantuan data drain.” Considering the fact that Facebook has over 2.4 billion monthly active users, it would be a logistical nightmare to listen and record information 24 hours a day, for the sole purpose of sending you relevant ads.

This theory also brings up many other obstacles. “Listening to conversations in real-time has a bunch of challenges,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO of private search engine DuckDuckGo. “Getting your voice-to-text correct and extracting all that information, you would need specific AI.” This is true considering Google and Amazon have only scratched the surface of understanding human speech automation with their respective Home Assistant and Alexa. It’s also worth noting that targeted advertising is significantly cheaper than attempting to reach the AI advancement needed for this level of data mining.

In a more informal study, CNET reporters discussed pre-designated topics in front of their phones and then monitored their Facebook feeds for related ads. Their findings concluded with no evidence that suggested Facebook had been listening to their conversations.

Facebook’s response to these claims

If the research isn’t convincing, you could consider listening to the source himself. Co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg told Congress last year that the company does not use phone surveillance to create ads. “No. Let me be clear on this: You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg told Sen. Gary Peters. “We don’t do that.”

However, Facebook has recently been fined 5 billion dollars for their Cambridge Analytica privacy violation, so we can’t verify the credibility of this source.

In conclusion

Although this theory is possible, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s viable.  Your phone likely isn’t listening to you and recording your conversations. However, that doesn’t mean that companies aren’t interested in what you say and the data behind your activity online.

How your business can take advantage of targeted advertising

If your business is currently investing in advertising, using targeted ads can be extremely beneficial to your return on investment. By investing in targeted ads, you can expect to see more efficient campaign development, better use of your advertising dollar, and significantly more results!

At Kingston Webworks, our team of social media and SEO experts are all about getting your products and services on front and centre stage. We research, develop, and implement targeted ad campaigns that generate results. If targeted advertising is something your business is interested in, get in touch with us today! We would love to hear from you.