Is your phone REALLY listening to you? Tech expert explains why some online ads are too coincidental

You haven’t seen your friend in a long time, and the conversation at the pub is lively. He just proposed to his girlfriend, and naturally, the topic shifts to a stag do in Las Vegas.

He excuses himself to the restroom, leaving two empty pints on the table but assures he’ll get a round at the bar when he returns. You glance at your phone to pass the time… and there it is: ‘Las Vegas holidays starting at £2,000’.

A cold chill runs down your spine, unrelated to the draft from the door. This isn’t the first occurrence. And there’s only one possible conclusion, right?

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend and received targeted ads that seem a little too on the money? 

The same thing happened to Robert G. Reeve, whose Twitter-thread explanation of why he was receiving toothpaste ads was shared on Instagram

The privacy tech expert explained how he started to receive specific ads for a toothpaste brand he used at his mother’s house after staying there for a week, despite never talking about this brand or googling it. 

According to him, our smartphone applications gather vast amounts of data from our devices, which data aggregators purchase from various sources. This data includes our location, demographics, unique device ID, and even specific details like the discount codes we use at stores. Essentially, all our purchases and sign-ups are linked together after agreeing to comprehensive data-sharing agreements in the terms of service and privacy policies.

Furthermore, if your phone frequently shares the same GPS location as another phone, data aggregators take notice. They then begin to build a network of your regular contacts, allowing advertisers to cross-reference your interests, purchase history, and browsing habits with those around you. Consequently, you start receiving tailored advertisements based on the individuals in your proximity, including family, friends, and even colleagues.

The underlying concept here is that the system aims to present you with ads for products that you may not necessarily desire but might be of interest to someone you frequently interact with. This can potentially initiate conversations about those products, such as Robert’s discussion about toothpaste.

In reality, what we unknowingly provide to our phones is a more affordable and potent source of information. Rather than our social media apps actively “listening” to us, which Robert dismisses as a repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory, they primarily compare aggregated metadata.

With Apple’s iOS 14 update, a new feature notifies you whenever your microphone or camera is accessed. A small orange dot appears in the top-right corner of the screen when the microphone is in use, and a green dot appears when the camera is active.

To ensure that your apps cannot listen to you, you can take the following steps:

  • Open the Settings app, navigate to Privacy
  • Select either Microphone or Camera, and disable the toggle for any apps that don’t require access to these features.

If you change your mind and want to grant permission again, simply follow the same steps and toggle the switches back on.

For Android users, a similar process can be followed by accessing Settings, then Personal, Privacy and Safety, and finally App Permissions.

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