You’re scrolling through your social media feed or cruising your favourite website when there it is — staring back at you, an advertisement for that obscure item you just casually mentioned in conversation with a friend.
You didn’t Google search it, or even write about it in a text. While the tech giants claim they don’t do it, the suspicion that your cellphone and smart devices eavesdrop on you has become common online chatter, prompting countless tweets and a lengthy Reddit thread.
The industry will point to algorithms that can predict with astonishing accuracy what you’re likely to be thinking or talking about, according to John Pracejus, director of the school of retailing, University of Alberta.
“They know such a scary amount about you that they’re able to guess at the topics that you’re thinking about even without listening in on your verbal conversations,” said Pracejus.
People underestimate the degree to which their online activities are being monitored, Pracejus said. But he has a feeling there is more to it.
“Another possibility of course is that they are, in fact, listening to you. And there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any reason that they couldn’t do that.
“And I’m unaware of any reason that would prevent them from doing that. At least any legal or regulatory reasons.”
The technology certainly exists — increasingly popular virtual assistant devices are always listening in, waiting for verbal cues. Amazon Echo has even had problems with accidentally ordering items it overhears on TV.
However, the industry and experts are hesitant to confirm these devices are listening to us beyond their intended purpose.
“Smart TVs listen to you, phones listen to you, all of these voice-activated pods listen to you. It’s unknown how much of that is being recorded and transcribed and stored and used for ad-serving purposes,” said Pracejus.
‘Not true’, Facebook says
“Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. 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.”
Facebook advertisers can target users by age, location, interests and behaviours – including “device usage.”
Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp) says it only accesses a device’s microphone if the user has granted its app permission, and “if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”
Google admits it scans your emails, though promised to stop doing so for advertising purposes. In July 2017, the free email and search engine giant said it would stop reading over its 1.2 billion users’ emails for the purpose of advertising “later this year.”
“Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change.”
Targeted advertising is so good it’s ‘creepy’
While the industry insists it does not listen to you without your permission, that doesn’t mean it isn’t using a host of tools to figure out what will make you click.
Your online search and purchase history are among your habits that can be used to create a profile.
David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School doesn’t believe there’s “any evidence” that we are being eavesdropped on.
WATCH: Virtual assistants taking over
“I think what happens is people don’t realize that their clickstream path is actually extremely informative of the thought processes that are going on in your mind,” said Soberman.
“Even if you don’t actually Google something or speak about something, from your thought processes, they can sort of infer what’s on your mind, what’s your state of mind, what you’re thinking about.”
People only have their own experiences to pull from, but it’s not just your habits being taken into account to predict what ads you might be interested in seeing. Information is sourced from masses of people with similar habits as you to help figure out what you might like next.
“The algorithm is better at knowing how things you think about are related than you are in terms of your own thought process because they have information across millions of people and you only have access to your own experiences,” said Pracejus.
“It’s my belief that targeted advertising is not as good as it could be to avoid being creepy.”
The options to prevent being tracked online are slim, and the experts agree that things will become more “big-brotherish” over time.
Soberman predicts that products and services providing people the ability to hide their activity will become big business. Until then, embracing technology means giving in to the customized advertising experience.
“How much privacy are you willing to trade for convenience, is really I think the big question of the next five years,” said Pracejus.