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
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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