As I sit here, formulating a plan for this diatribe on the excess of corporate greed gone wrong, I am reminded of a very sobering and worrisome fact: If this were a conversation and not an article, my telephone would have heard it all.
We’ve all had that terrifying moment recently, wherein a physical, face to face conversation with another real, present human being somehow translated itself into an advertisement targeted to us in our Facebook or Instagram feed. Twitter is literally erupting with shocked Americans, who believe they are witnessing some modern, digital urban legends akin to the Bloody Mary legend.
For those of you who may not remember grade school as well as the rest of us, a great many American children found themselves enthralled by the idea of conjuring a long-dead schoolgirl named “Bloody Mary”. In the varying versions of this common trope, Mary had died either from tuberculosis, Typhoid fever, or whatever local catastrophe your town may have experienced in the decades surrounding the Industrial Revolution. The climax of the telling of the tale was a spooky and sacrilegious act in which young children would gather around a mirror, usually in the bathroom of their school. They would say the words “Bloody Mary” three times while standing in front of the mirror, with the lights out, and wait for her visage to appear.
The mass consciousness experiment often provides results, simply because these young, imaginative human beings want it to, much like the gimmicks behind the Ouija Board, and the “light as a feather” slumber party game.
Trending: Fuel for Thought
Now, the urban legend that your phone is listening in on your every word, and then sending you advertisements based on those words, is spreading like wildfire.
I’m not saying that my phone is listening to me, but I was just telling a friend about Rent The Runway and I get an email from them in my inbox 5 mins later.
— Jesslyn 🇮🇩 (@jtannady) March 7, 2018
I’ve come to the conclusion that my phone is 100% listening to me
— ℰmily (@jmilyeones) March 7, 2018
Pretty sure my phone is listening to me and my conversations and brings up in-app ads for things I talk about/want.
— ❄ Ice Cold (@FvllyAvtomatik) March 6, 2018
My phone is listening to me …. I was talking about Stella’s and Smirnoff and then I go to ig and 2 separate adds pop up for them …
— Matty B (@bigmattyb) March 5, 2018
This compilation of spooked social media users was discovered, arranged, and added to this article within 90 seconds of typing “my phone is listening to me” into the search bar on Twitter. That is just how pervasive this phenomenon has become.
Now, in an even creepier twist to the sordid tale, and at a fork in the road that diverges from the wholly false Bloody Mary meme, the legend of the eavesdropping iPhones is completely real.
“’Smartphones are small tracking devices,’ Michelle De Mooy, Acting Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy & Data Project, told Digital Trends. ‘We may not think of them like that because they’re very personal devices — they travel with us, they sleep next to us. But they are in fact collectors of a vast amount of information including audio information.’”
“Audio data could reveal all sorts of things. The ambient noise could determine whether you’re in the living room or the bathtub. Background voices could reveal who you’re with. Using the microphone to measure noise levels can even reveal when you’re asleep.
“’Even if you think you’re not saying anything very interesting or worthwhile, the data gets married and mingled with lots of other kinds of data that can create a very detailed picture of you,’ explains De Mooy. ‘Most of these technologies aren’t in a vacuum, they’re not siloed, they really are interacting with every other type of technology that we have.’”
What De Mooy is implying is absolutely terrifying: Namely, that our phones, that we willingly carry are the RFID chips that the early 2000’s conspiracy theorists warned us against.
And, thanks to the “internet of things” that now includes refrigerators, personal assistants, televisions, and baby monitors, software companies pretty much know everything about you. Yes. Everything.
“Last year the CDT alerted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to a technology called SilverPush. It uses audio beacons to track your activities across devices: Your TV emits a tone during a commercial break, a tone that’s inaudible to you, but your phone is listening for it. Now they can link the TV and phone as belonging to the same person.
“Advertisers have developed lots of techniques for device-matching, because the more accurately they can track your activities, the easier it is for them to advertise to you. But it’s not difficult to imagine other applications for this technology. Any government interested in who you are meeting with could play a tone through the TV and effectively ping all the phones in the room, identifying the whole group.”
Your phone hears you mention that you haven’t had a good cheeseburger in a while. You open Facebook during the commercial break in a television show, and your phone, recognizing that it has three minutes of your attention thanks to the audio recognition your smart TV’s output, decides that you will see more restaurant ads than you would on any regular scroll through the newsfeed. That’s because Facebook is receiving this data, somehow, and it knows that this TV show will start up again momentarily, and it knows that you are prime fodder for their advertisers for 180 seconds. You see 0.8 posts per minute when you’re scrolling, and Facebook knows this because it’s watching your facial reactions.
That last part was not a joke. That’s actually happening.
“The Daily Mail reports that social media company Facebook filed a patent called ‘Techniques for emotion detection and content delivery’ to collect ‘passive imaging data’ via device cameras that are not turned on, an act which experts are calling an ‘ethical minefield.’
“The patent was discovered by CB Insights, a market intelligence firm based in New York, a CB Insights spokesperson said in a post, ‘On the one hand, they want to identify which content is most engaging and respond to audience’s reactions, on the other emotion-detection is technically difficult, not to mention a PR and ethical minefield.'”
Now, in the midst of this unbelievable data targeting revolution, Amazon has upped the ante with Alexa: Their personal home assistant that provides you with a bit more ease in your life, while completely pillaging your personality for data, and selling that profile to advertisers for big, big money.
Alexa, which was emulated by Google with their Home device, acts as a personal assistant with a bit more pizzaz than the relatively simple Siri on iPhone. Alexa is completely hands free, for starters, and stays in the home. (But that is not to say that the phone data isn’t shard with Alexa…it most certainly is). Even when you and your phone are down at the local pub listening to your friends talk about even more cheeseburgers, Alexa is at home, collecting data. And, given that Alexa is programmed to coordinate your grocery purchasing through Amazon, she could be communicating with your smart refrigerator in order to see what needs to be ordered from Whole Foods or Amazon Now in order to have a mighty fine cheeseburger for dinner when you get home.
This sounds like a delightful, Jetsons-future moment. Hell, throw a Roomba named “Rosie” in there and tell your phone to refer to yourself as George while you’re at it.
But, we must remember that for every bit of utopia available to us, there is an equal, yet opposite dystopia to be found. The deep, dark secrets behind your tacky ability to order food by shooting at your refrigerator are going to cost us all very dearly in the long run.
We, as human beings, have value. We are cunning. We have grit. And, for the most part, we like the feeling of achieving something. That makes us good at work. Other animals don’t really work the way that humans do.
We, as individuals, own ourselves. Our personalities. Our likes and dislikes. Our ever-evolving view of the world around us. That is something that we cannot allow to be tainted, or worse, stolen. Our taste cannot be for sale. This is the very essence of who we are, and the inexcusable focus of Silicon Valley on monetizing individuality must be opposed en masse. It is far too easily perverted into an offensive weapon.
These advertisers are no longer passive marketing companies, but, rather, they are in the business of mind control, thought prediction, and mental conditioning.
The price of convenience could very well be our free will if we are not diligent in our insistence on freedom.