Ad Agency Answers: Is Your Phone Listening?

Katie Hayward
November 29, 2018

“I want to go to the Bahamas this winter,” you said to your spouse one evening. You hadn’t searched for a trip to the Bahamas yet, or put it in an email; you simply said it aloud and in private (with your smartphone lurking beside you). And lo and behold, the next day, you saw an ad for a trip to the Bahamas while surfing the web.

Your smartphone must have been listening. Right?

We’d like to give you a straight answer, but it’s a little unclear. One important point of clarification is that “we,” an ad agency, are not responsible for or in control of any potential listening.

“It’s certainly something we take an interest in and is a consumer concern we are aware of,” says Paulsen Media Strategist Joanie Hess. “We aren’t involved in any ad targeting that (to our knowledge) involves audio data from smartphones.”

And, you can rest assured that most companies, especially Facebook, deny listening to your conversations for ad purposes. But here are a few short answers to these complex questions:

Are they capable of listening? Yes.

In a 2018 Global News article, John Pracejus, director of the school of retailing, University of Alberta said, “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.”

Are they listening? Probably not.

According to a CBS interview with former Facebook Operations Manager Sandy Parakilas, listening sounds like a logistical nightmare.

“I think it’s very, very unlikely,” said Parakilas. “Constant streams of audio from so many phones would be too expensive to gather and analyze, and all the data would drive up people’s phone bills. Besides, companies don’t have to listen to know what’s on your mind.”

If you’d like a little more reassurance, computer scientists at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, conducted a year-long study and found no evidence of your phone listening without your knowing about it. Unfortunately, it did find that some apps were recording your screen and sending that info to third parties, but let’s stick to the listening issue for now.

Then why do you receive such highly relevant ads?

The truth is, phones don’t have to listen to you to know what you’re doing and thinking. For most of us, our digital footprint is larger, and more telling, than we care to think about. By using touchpoints such as purchase history, location history, web/app history and ad tracking tools such as Facebook Pixel, our phones collect enough data to write a book about us.

This short Wall Street Journal video does a great job of explaining the process—specifically, how you could see a cold medicine ad when you’re sick, even if you haven’t searched for cold medicine. Pairing our phone’s data with data from the world around us (by using location history) isn’t rocket science. As the video outlines, targeting a location where there is a known influenza outbreak could be easy using the data from smartphones—data that most of us have agreed to share when downloading apps to our phone.

So, I shouldn’t worry about my privacy, right?

Wrong. Perhaps don’t worry about your phone listening to you for the purpose of advertising, for now. But there are still digital concerns that everyone should be keeping an eye on including digital assistants, like Google Home and Alexa. What are they saving and sending back to their servers? What happens when the police/government request that info? Satellites, facial recognition software, DNA testing services and much more. The world seems to be getting smaller and more watchful, but for now, take comfort in knowing that your phone (probably) isn’t in on the listening.

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