Is Your Phone Spying On You to Serve Relevant Ads?

Relevance is key in marketing today.  But, is your smartphone spying on you to get the marketing data?

There is a tech rumor that refuses to die. It is the one that says Facebook uses your smartphone microphone to listen to you and those around you, then serves you ads that are relevant to what you were talking about. You’ve had it happen. You and a friend are talking about the neighbor’s cat and within minutes, you see a PetSmart™ or Lil Caesars® cat food ad on your phone. Creepy right?

Or maybe you and the spouse were discussing vacation time and the next thing you know, a Carnival® Cruise ship drifts across your iPad or tablet screen. Coincidence? Facebook says, yes.

Last year, in a statement, Facebook claimed explicitly that they do not eavesdrop: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone for ads or news feed stories. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.”

So, why do we see those ads for things we just talked about? Welcome to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as frequency illusion or recency illusion. It’s like buying a car you never saw much on the road, but now you have one, it seems everyone is driving one.

Facebook of course, does use your microphone, with your express permission, for things like recording videos or Facebook Live, but again recently denied ever using it for listening in while you are unaware.

That may not be the case however, with all apps. The New York Times recently reported on apps using Alphonso software (over 250 apps available on Google Play and the App Store) as the software does indeed use your smartphone microphone. Not technically to listen to what you say, but it listens for audio cues from television ads in order to track your viewing behavior.

This information is very valuable in the “programmatic” world we live in and can be sold back to advertisers looking to better target their messages to the right audience. You can, and should check your phone settings and microphone permissions regularly to make sure Big Brother is not, in fact, listening. Alphonso Software can even work in your pocket or purse says the New York Times article, so stowing it is not an option.

The FTC is aware of this and other “listening” software and takes a pretty dim view of its proliferation. In 2016 they warned app developers using Silverpush’s software that they could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. Then in early 2017 they actually fined TV maker Visio™ $2.2 million for collecting viewing data from 11 million TV sets without consumer consent. So apparently, the real Big Brother is watching and trying to keep us all safe from snooping apps, creepy invasive software and phones that listen to us … now why did I just get a Facebook ad for George Orwell’s 1984 book on Amazon®? … I swear … Somebody is listening to me!