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Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Watching You.

Over the last few years, I’ve been paying more attention to the ads I see on my phone as I try to read the news. Two phenomena have really stood out:

  1. The eerily timely and relevant ads.

  2. The irrationally persistent irrelevant ads.

Tackling the second one first, I need to send a shout out to Tecova Boots: “Not gonna happen, kids. Not today and not ever.” I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1970’s, and my main criterion for footwear is still how well it will help me run away. No offense to a couple of friends my age (urbane cowboys?) who do wear cowboy boots. They were probably tougher back in the day. I see a Tecovas ad just about every day. Slider belts, too. I sometimes wonder how I’d look if I gave in to both things. But mostly I wonder about the relentless repetition of these two items. I’d like to get a look at the algorithm that matches me up with cowboy boots and slider belts.

But are apps using your microphone or camera to gather the biggest of big data? Well, thereby hangs a tale…

A few months ago, I began reading articles addressing this question of unannounced usage of the microphones and cameras built into mobile phones. You’re probably aware that buried on page 23 of the Terms of Use for some of your favorite “free” apps, is language that allows the publisher to record whatever the microphone can pick up without notifying you that they are doing it. So, I devised a little unscientific test. I picked 3 things that I had had no recent involvement with. Things that were reasonably “big ticket” – and things I could not remember popping up as ads recently. My wife and I manufactured some casual conversation about each one. The plan was to go through these conversations each day for 3 days with my phone nearby. Two of the items bore no fruit. But the third – concerning a fictitious desire to visit Las Vegas – got results the second day. Not in the form of an online ad, but rather as an email from a certain hotel/casino which shall remain nameless. We had stayed in that hotel 4-1/2 years previously during our one and only visit to Las Vegas. The email was not near my birthday or our anniversary (the occasion of my one visit years ago). Coincidence? Maybe. Probably. Possibly. I DON’T KNOW!

The articles I’ve read have been evenly split between those that say yes, your private conversations are being picked up, and the ones that quote company spokespersons as saying no, we don’t do that. I always ask myself if the word “yet” is implicit in these denials – else why establish the right? A study by Gizmodo showed that about 9,000 of 17,000+ apps studied have microphone and camera permissions. Here are a couple on the “yes” side:

  1. New York Times Dec. 28, 2017 “That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You’re Watching On TV.” The article describes Alphonso – software incorporated on over 1,000 apps including over 250 games and Shazam, a popular music app. The troubling thing is that Alphonso listens for audio signals embedded in TV shows and movies shown in theaters 24/7, whether you are at home, at a friend’s, or at the local multiplex. Even if the app containing it is not open. It sells that data to anyone who wishes to buy it, and it is child’s play to tie your IP address to your name, physical address and cell phone number. Here’s the money quote:

“Alphonso’s apps and its relationship with Shazam show that there can be a connection between what our phones may hear and the ads that appear on a website or social media feed in the next few hours.”

  1. June 5, 2018 “No, you’re not being paranoid, your phone really is listening to you.” This article makes the point that while Siri theoretically only reacts after you utter “Hey Siri”, and Google’s device only when you say “OK, Google,” these things need to be listening 24/7 in order to hear one of the triggers. And by the way, there could be thousands of such triggers with no one the wiser.

While we’re working on a fashion-forward tinfoil hat design, tell us something we don’t know. Or just tell us your odd advertising experiences. The ones that make YOU wonder…

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