Is Your Phone Spying On You? Michigan AG Says Maybe
You and a friend are reminiscing about when you're kids were babies, swapping stories and somehow the topic of diapers comes up. You think nothing of it until your scrolling through your phone later that evening and see an ad for Pampers. Why did that suddenly appear? You haven't searched for them and yet somehow you're seeing them on every site you visit. Were they there before and you just didn't notice? Why are you getting them now? Is your phone listening in on your conversations?
The short answer is: Maybe.
During the COVID-19 pandemic social media and cell phones were how we kept in touch and concerns ran high that big brother may be watching and / or listening to everything we do. Tape was placed over computer cameras and phones were shut off. Here we are over a year removed and people are still wondering "is my smartphone spying on me?".
In Michigan our Attorney General, Dana Nessel, heard these concerns and addressed them with a post on Michigan.gov.
According the post, your phones microphone could be activated remotely, but there would have to be an app or program installed that would initiate that action. So are your conversations being monitored and then regurgitated on various platforms as ads or other content targeting you specifically?
According to Consumer Reports it is possible, "but not practical". In one of the studies, Consumer Reports researched over 17,000 apps and didn't find any of them that activated your phones microphone and recorded audio, let alone an app that sold that audio to advertising to target consumers. According to Michigan.gov, a separate study was conducted by a mobile security company looking specifically at the Big 5 (Amazon, Chrome, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube). Once again, they found no evidence that they were eavesdropping.
I know what you're thinking: "Then where did the diaper ad come from?". Maybe it was there and you didn't notice it until it was brought up in conversation. Maybe your phone is listening. While it's possible I can't imagine a modern day Don Draper is standing red faced at a conference room table yelling, "Darn it why won't (insert your name here) just buy some diapers!".
One reason you may be seeing more displays online for baby products is that Google thinks you're an expectant / current mother / father / grandparent because of your search behavior online. The tech giant builds a profile for each individual user of its products. If your signed in to Google or have an account, you can actually see who Google thinks you are by viewing your Target Ad Profile. Go ahead, click here to see who they think you are.
They were pretty spot on for me. Google thinks I'm an English speaking married male between the age of 45-54 years old. You can also see the activity they use to personalize your ads, based on web and app activity, YouTube history, and the places you've visited when using Google.
If you'd rather keep that info private, you can go to your Activities Control settings in your Google account and determine what you do and don't share.
Honestly if my phone wants to listen in on my conversations about how much I miss Old Country Buffet or my fear of snakes, they are more than welcome to.
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