Creepy examples of ad targeting: are smartphones eavesdropping on us?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Creepy examples of ad targeting: are smartphones eavesdropping on us?
Personal data is one of the hottest commodities right now, and companies are doing whatever they can to get their hands on it. The goal is simple: to provide better-targeted ads that bring more money to those that provide them. Of course, this is presented to consumers as a great feature since you’ll no longer see ads for things that are of no interest to you. But how deep are companies digging to get the information needed to suggest just the right item? A lot deeper than we’d like, it turns out.

Stories about people receiving ads about things they’ve mentioned casually in conversation have become modern urban myths. People often discard their validity for being too out there and such a reach into our privacy that even the “evilest” companies wouldn’t do something like that.

The thing is, unless you have access to the inner workings of an app that’s suspected of eavesdropping on you, there’s no way to prove it is happening. There’s always a chance that the ad placement was a mere coincidence that our brain, looking for patterns in everything, has connected to a conversation we’ve had.

However, we’ve gathered a few examples that seem to be a bit too specific to be explained by chance and for which the most logical reason is “the phone has been listening”. Some of these examples are coming from people part of our team, while others are from close friends and relatives.

Example 1: Mind reading or just reading?


John (name changed) was texting a friend of his on Facebook Messenger about planning to use a flower delivery service in another city as a birthday surprise. John hadn’t looked up anything on Google yet and had never before seen ads for anything even remotely related to this. And yet, barely 10 minutes after the conversation, as he was scrolling through his news feed on Facebook, there was an ad about flower delivery services in that specific city he mentioned earlier. Obviously, the chance of that being a coincidence is close to zero. The only logical explanation is that bots are scouring through conversations looking for keywords and then matching them to users for ad targeting. For John, the preciseness of the ad felt invasive and he made sure to use a delivery service different from the one that was advertised.

The only way this story can get creepier is if your phone automatically sends this guy to do the delivery

The only way this story can get creepier is if your phone automatically sends this guy to do the delivery


Example 2: As heard in your living room


Emma and Mary (again, changed names) were watching the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. During the show, the two were discussing what types of makeup are likely being used by the contestants, including specifics like brands and different lines. Emma, the one who reported to us, said she’s personally not too much into makeup and doesn’t do any research online before buying her own, she just picks it up at the store. And yet, the next day, while on Facebook, she started noticing ads about the same products from the same brands she and her friend were talking about. 

But Facebook doesn’t seem to be the only one being too nosey.

Example 3: The cat conspiracy


An American couple was having a chat using Samsung’s built-in text messaging app, both using an S10 device. The two were contemplating switching cat food brands, without having any specific one as a replacement in mind yet. And, you guessed it, ads for cat food were quick to appear, but that’s not all! About a week later, the couple received discount coupons for a specific brand of cat food. The coupons were for a local pet store that the couple has never shopped at and were mailed to the address they’re living at, further adding to the creepiness factor.

Maybe the cat was behind it all along!

Maybe the cat was behind it all along!


Example 4: You're more predictable than you think


This time it wasn’t an ad that was too personal, but still an example of your phone keeping an eye on your activities. A woman in the States was looking to buy a house and was browsing offers on a realtor’s website. There was one she liked and was considering it for a while when she received a notification from Google with the exact time it would take her to drive to work from her new home during morning traffic. Now, that’s something you’re probably interested in when about to change living arrangements but it’s still a bit unsettling that your phone is doing these suggestions on its own.

Example 5: Based on your interests


Randy was talking on the phone to one of his friends one day and he mentioned that he was reading the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. At which his friend said: “You know, there’s another book of his I can recommend to you: Outwitting the devil.” That was the first time Randy has ever heard of that book, but as you might have already guessed, it wouldn’t be the last. Sure enough, the next day as he was scrolling through his Facebook feed, there were ads for the book “Outwitting the devil.” Coincidence? Unlikely.
 
Don't read your diary out loud, your phone might recommend you a shrink

Don't read your diary out loud, your phone might recommend you a shrink


Example 6: Let me take that off your hands


This final one is coming from popular podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan. One of his friends was having a conversation with someone in person and said that he plans to trade in his car to get a new one and also mentioned the brand and model of the car he currently owned. There were no Facebook ads this time, however. The person said he received a text message on his phone with a link for a website with a trade-in evaluation of his car ready for him to take advantage of. Unsurprisingly, he refused to click a link randomly sent to him, but it was clear from the text of the message that the phone was aware of his intentions.

Why aren't we hearing more about this?


After reading the examples, it’s easy to point the finger at Facebook for everything that’s wrong with privacy today. But the truth is that there are many more companies that are likely guilty of the same without us even suspecting. It might even be others that do the data collecting and sell it to those willing to pay for it. We asked Facebook if they have such practices but so far there’s no response.

Either way, if our phones are really listening to us, then why aren’t seeing these ultra-targeted ads more often? Again, there’s no definitive answer since there’s no proof that’s even happening, but we have our theories:

Theory 1: It's a premium feature that few companies opt to use

If there’s a scale on which to put personal data and its value for ad targeting, then keywords stripped from conversations would probably be at the very top. This means that the companies providing that data will charge a premium for it. Perhaps, then, there’s only a limited number of ad campaigns that are ready to pop up on your feed as soon as something relevant is mentioned by you.
 
He said jumper cables, quick, hit him with all the jumper cables ads we have!

He said jumper cables, quick, hit him with all the jumper cables ads we have!


Theory 2: Companies employ a "cooldown" period to not freak us out too much

Imagine if every other day you see an add about something random you’ve mentioned in a casual conversation. It won’t take long before you start feeling paranoid about your phone’s superpowers and take measures to counter them: denying permissions, reducing the use of certain apps or uninstalling them altogether. That’s the last thing companies want! It might be more beneficial for them to take a revenue hit but only use this “trick” once every couple of weeks, for example. That way it’s a lot easier for people to go for the “coincidence” explanation and not think too much about what their phone is doing, keeping the data flow going.

Theory 3: It's happening often, we just don't notice it.

Ads have become such an integral part of our online experience that we’ve developed the habit to ignore them as much as possible. Maybe we are seeing ads based on our text or voice conversations on a regular basis, just without realizing it. After all, it’s not every day we talk about something so unusual that an ad about it will grab our attention. Plus, we also often check websites or watch videos about the things that interest us, so it’s easy to assume that’s why the ads are appearing (and usually you’d be right). And let’s not forget that most smartphone users aren’t even aware such intrusive behavior is even theoretically possible, so even if they have a prime example for this article, they’d never think there’s something going on behind the scenes.

But since you’re here, you clearly know better than the average user. So, tell us, have you experienced anything similar to what we’ve described above? Or have you taken all the necessary measures to make sure your phone isn’t cooperating with anyone else? Share your stories in the comments below!

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39 Comments

1. Dbosss

Posts: 23; Member since: Mar 18, 2019

Wtf is eavesdropping!!!!!! Never heard that word ever!!!

8. Cat97

Posts: 1798; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

Just learn basic English. A lot of opportunities will open to you.

2. GreenMan

Posts: 2697; Member since: Nov 09, 2015

There's a reason GreenMan avoids Facebook and its little minion, the so called "Messenger" like the plague! He's so enlightened and wise, isn't he? If you want security, then look no further than iMessage™, exclusively available on Apple™ Products. But in all seriousness, if you're not using end-to-end encryption then you're basically shouting out loud in public. I'm almost exclusively using iMessage nowadays and have yet to encounter a sneaky, creepy advert. I can say the same thing about What'sApp and Telegram, two other chatting apps that offer end-to-end encryption, and were my bread and butter when I'd my Sammy S6. Oh well, G'Day!

5. TBomb

Posts: 1259; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

You must do something on your phone besides iMessage. search? maps? game?

7. PicDop

Posts: 1; Member since: Jul 11, 2019

Sorry, but Whatsapp is owned by Facebook. I was texting with my GF on WhatsApp about some brands (Chloe and MiuMiu). First time I ever mentioned this brands. Next thing I know my facebook was full with adds from those brands.

15. TheOracle1

Posts: 2148; Member since: May 04, 2015

They can keep sending ads all day as far as I'm concerned. If my ad blocking vpn isn't on then my standalone ad blocker is. Before that it was happening to me all the time but only for items I searched or pages I visited. The only Facebook app I use is WhatsApp out of necessity.

35. japkoslav

Posts: 1465; Member since: Feb 19, 2017

I wonder ... guys, how is the life without an ad blocker? Sound pretty intusive.

37. TheOracle1

Posts: 2148; Member since: May 04, 2015

Ad blocker for websites primarily..... Smarta$$!

36. TheOracle1

Posts: 2148; Member since: May 04, 2015

Facebook is the dirtiest, most insidious company doing this. Two days ago I called a friend for the first time in almost a year and yesterday I received a friend suggestion for him on my fb page. I only access fb via browser and don't use any of their apps except whatsapp. So I looked at the WhatsApp permissions and phone is included. Wtf does whatsapp need phone permissions for? I unchecked every permission it doesn't need to function. Zuckerberg and his company are scumbags. I can tolerate Google because they're actually useful. Facebook and it's creepy apps are not.

3. iloveapps

Posts: 691; Member since: Mar 21, 2019

If Apple = Greedy then Android = Creepy.

6. TBomb

Posts: 1259; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

Only 1 item listed the phone type and it was a Samsung app on a Samsung phone. Samsung is hardly all of Android.

14. Tipus

Posts: 814; Member since: Sep 30, 2016

He doesn't know anything other than Samsung :))

22. MrMalignance

Posts: 213; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

@iloveapps: quit trying to sensationalize the article. They mentioned Samsung, but from personal experience, I've heard of this happening on all platforms. That's right: all of them. People who I know who use Android and apple have both complained about this. The predominant factor I've noticed is Facebook. Facebook does happen to be on most of those devices. That's why I don't use the Facebook app. Creepy permissions and fine print about turning on your mic or camera when they want to, not when you do it

4. buccob

Posts: 2955; Member since: Jun 19, 2012

Maybe it is coincidence but this has definitely happened to me and people I know.

20. AbhiD

Posts: 639; Member since: Apr 06, 2012

It's not coincidence. Personally have had too much incidences where i found that many apps, infact the phone itself was constantly monitoring what i was doing.

9. azuleyez

Posts: 21; Member since: Dec 07, 2012

I have absolutely no doubt our phones are eavesdropping on us. IN fact, I have proof. Recently I was talking to friends about dental work after one had mentioned needing a crown. We discussed for several minutes and shared stories about how expensive dental work is. Moments later, I log into Facebook and I was immediately targeted with ads about local dentists in my area and dental savings plans. I HAD NOT GOOGLED, INQUIRED OR RESEARCHED ANYTHING DENTAL ON MY PHONE OR COMPUTER, EVER. Now how is this possible???

10. Valdomero

Posts: 657; Member since: Nov 13, 2012

That's some blackmirror witchcraft right there dude/dudette

11. Cat97

Posts: 1798; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

Facebook could have used you location and determine that you were in the same place with your friends, then one of your friends may have googled the subject and facebook's algorithms determined that you may also be interested :)

12. Vogue1985

Posts: 409; Member since: Jan 24, 2017

My pixel does this ALOTTT. Could be talking about something, ie food,cars,locations. And when I surf the ad or stream music,the ads match what I talked about. Oh well its aGoogle phone so sorry shouldn't be surprised

23. MsPooks

Posts: 10; Member since: Jul 08, 2019

That goes with the Pixel turf, though. More than any other, a Pixel is Google's hook into your entire life. Not making a judgment on that; it's just the way it is.

31. lyndon420

Posts: 6590; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

That's the way it is with every platform.

13. dnomadic

Posts: 390; Member since: Feb 20, 2015

This must be the iPhones message for this years iPhone because it is all I am reading about recently (phone security). I can almost guarantee this will be a big point during the iPhone launch this year.

16. Damac71nina

Posts: 19; Member since: Aug 06, 2012

Stupid article. Have you been living under a rock? Of course your phone knows you and spy’s on you just like the rest of your IOT devices in your home if it connects to the internet and collects data chances are it knows you very well. That’s why I have no smart home devices there all connected to the Internet with no security lol your cameras can be used against you, garage door hell even your door locks. I’m surprised people don’t know about this stuff and no I’m not a hacker but I know a few

17. shonasof

Posts: 17; Member since: Mar 18, 2019

Ads tailored to your own interests are still just Ads. You're going to get them either way, and like 99.99% of them, people just ignore them. This is how ads _should_ work. If your phone were constantly transmitting everything you talk about to an external server, your data usage would skyrocket, and no one would want to manually deal with/sort through that much data from that many phones. Also, when you accept the user agreement for the services you use on your phone, you're giving consent to the way the phone operates whether you read the TOS or not.

26. mariosraptor

Posts: 168; Member since: Mar 15, 2012

And that's why I'll return to a basic feature phone really really soon. No more privacy. Wish I hadn't even the feature phone. But I have to.

32. lyndon420

Posts: 6590; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

Best thing to do is get a burner phone while they're still legal.

28. bucknassty

Posts: 1317; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

my thing is when someone at work comes to me with a crazy story about sky diving or something i get ads about it... WTF never been, never looked it up... someone is listening... and listening to the wrong s**t!

29. Abdbaas

Posts: 138; Member since: Apr 05, 2016

It's 100% true. I was working for Google and I can tell you that people were out there (like public transport, trains, planes etc) until recently recording at all time..

30. drdrew321

Posts: 1; Member since: Jul 11, 2019

Recently a friend and I were watching the movie “The Highwaymen” on Netflix, about the Texas agents who took out Bonnie & Clyde. One scene is in the Texas governor’s office, who happened to be a woman, Miriam Ferguson. My friend said, “Texas had a woman governor in 1934?” I started to Google it on my phone, and I only got to “Who was the gov ...” and the first thing that popped up on Google was “... governor of Texas in 1934.” We were freaked out. I did a lot of searching and discovered that Google is recording bits and pieces of everything said around your phone, all the time, and processing it through their AI algorithms. This happens EVEN IF YOUR PHONE IS TURNED OFF! As long as the battery is not dead, the phone will continue to record and transmit stuff it hears all the time. I read a suggestion that I deny the Google app access to my phone's microphone, and I did that. I hope it works.

33. MrMalignance

Posts: 213; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

@drdrew321: The sad part is all tech is doing this. You search is not really solid proof of Google listening though. You were watching something on Netflix, imagine how many others watched and made the same search. Google is inherently made to prioritize searches by popularity, to hopefully increase accuracy. I'm not saying this isn't a case of Google listening, but all tech does, and will never truly admit it. Even if it wasn't Google, it'd be apple or Facebook, or some other app/tech software/hardware.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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