Why You Think Your Devices Are Listening To You


At a dinner party the other night, a very accomplished business person told a story about how he and his wife were certain that their devices were listening to their conversations. “I was talking to my wife about a pair of designer shoes that she wanted to purchase, and not 10 minutes later while she was doing some online research for work, she saw an ad for that exact pair of shoes. She hadn’t searched for the shoes; the ad just appeared. Clearly, our computers or our phones are listening.” Some people nodded in agreement, and others began to chime in.

I listened politely for a few minutes more as the story was embellished and other guests shared their own versions of “surveillance state” anecdotes.

Then, I raised my hand like a school kid and said, “OK. Wait. Which do you think is more likely? (A) There is secret software that breaks about 20 different local, state, and federal surveillance and privacy laws, that neither I nor any of my clients know about but that are being secretly used by me, my clients, and other advertisers to put the right message in front of you at the right time in the right place?

Or, (B) Thanks to your online behaviors (and the privacy policies, terms, and conditions you have agreed to) we have access to enriched data sets and our predictive models and machine learning tools have evolved so quickly that we have an uncanny ability to understand your behaviors well enough to put the right message in front of you at the right time in the right place?”

Questions that followed included “What is an enriched data set?” “What is an online behavior?” “What is a predictive model?” What kind of machine learning are you talking about? Is that AI?” And my favorite, “How do you know what I’ve been talking about with my friends?”

Enriched Data Sets

Data is more powerful in the presence of other data. If you have someone’s name and email address, you can send them a general offer via email. If you know where they live (phone book), what car they drive (warrantee lists), if they own or rent their home (public records), where they work (location data from your phone, LinkedIn, or other public websites), what they do (LinkedIn or other public websites), what their hours are (location data from their phone or Yelp or Google), how many people they are responsible for (inferred from their purchasing data), what they ordered for dinner last night (their social media posts), where they had dinner last night (their credit card info – which is legal to obtain if the company has a business relationship with them), how much debt they carry (their credit report), their credit score (credit reporting organizations), etc., you can send them a more targeted offer. The more data you have, the more accurate your predictions can be. But there is more to enriched data sets than passive information. Let’s add in online behaviors.

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Shelly Palmer is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert (WNYW-TV) and the host of Fox Television's monthly show Shelly Palmer Digital Living. He also hosts United Stations Radio Network's, ...

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Carol W 1 year ago Contributor's comment

Sorry Mr Author, I couldn't disagree more. There is nothing that is great about any of this. The genie is out of the box and we now find ourselves the unwilling victims of future technologies we have no control over. Our awareness has come too little too late. Our privacy is no longer ours. And there's no one and no way to stop it. Oh, politicians will try to use it to gain a voters but the empty words will amount to nothing but empty promises and empty results. And don't tell me there's an app that will help my cortisol levels when it was the other 5000 damned apps that got me strung out in the first place. You think you're paranoid now? They're just getting started. You want privacy? Unplug your computer, throw away your phone.

Cheers, Carol, a retronaut in training.

Susan Miller 1 year ago Member's comment

Carol is right. Companies are getting out of control and crossing lines knowing that if they get caught, they'll only get a slap on the wrist. I just read about how when #Google's Street View mapping cars passed by people's homes, they intentionally hacked into their wifi routers and stole users' private data. This was barely in the news, which is shocking! $GOOG $GOOGL

They knowingly stole users' info, kept it for years, and now only have to pay $13 million. Outrageous!


Gary Anderson 1 year ago Contributor's comment

I do think data sets can be valuable in specific industries. Or in a call center where time is wasted identifying products and history of the caller. But as a general rule you are right. We can go, Susan and Carol, into someone's house and an entire conversation can be recorded without our knowledge. That is just going too far.

Susan Miller 1 year ago Member's comment

Absolutely Gary. I don't understand how there has not been more outrage about #Google. They were found guilty and supposed to expunge all the private data they stole from their users almost 10 years ago. They never did. And the cl;aimed it was an accident but it later came out that they INTENTIONALLY stole this data.

I think it's no coincidence Google dropped the "Do no evil" from their mission statement.

Adam Reynolds 1 year ago Member's comment

Actually it was "Don't Be Evil" and was in #Google's 'Code of Conduct' since the beginning. Until it was removed last year. I guess their new motto became "Don't be Hypocrticial" so the line about not being evil had to be removed.