Big Brother is listening to you

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Let’s talk conspiracy

Lately a discussion has re-emerged suggesting that Facebook, Google, Instagram and other social medias are eavesdropping on your private conversations via your smartphone’s microphone in order to optimize their ad targeting. You might randomly chat about the latest Bladerunner and soon after you’re shown ads from your local theatre, or you might talk about moving to Berlin just to spot that a “VisitBerlin” ad snuck into your Instagram feed later that day.

Fair enough, it might not be the Orwellian dystopia people dreaded, but if allegations are true, it would be a hard hit for everyone’s privacy.

We have the technology

Granted, this discussion would be pointless, if the implied technological capabilities would not exist. This is why Zoe Kleinman, a technology reporter with the BBC, challenged two cybersecurity experts to find out wether it was physically possible to achieve this. Long story short, it is. In a matter of days, David Lodge and Ken Munro created a programme able to eavesdrop using the computer’s microphone, subsequently transcribing the conversation into text and picking out key words. So, allegations are not that ludicrous to begin with.

Take Damián Le Nouaille’s anecdotal article published by Medium, which generated more hype than initially thought. He explained how, during a 6-hour hike in Spain, he talked about planning to get a mini projector. Sure enough, scrolling through his Instagram feed later that day an ad for that exact same product popped up. Damian looked into all the possibilities that could have tipped of Instagram, but unfortunately none of them were likely. At the end of the day his sole explanation was that the “audio stream is translated to text on the phone (offline), and some patterns are extracted (offline)”, and that the coincidence of this happening without the app listening, would have been too big to be genuine.

Anything can happen, given enough opportunities

At this point, it doesn’t look too bright for the tech giants, but according to Professor David Hand’s improbability principle, coincidence might well be the explanation for Damian’s fear. When faced with an odd experience it is natural for a human to seek a rational explanation, but in reality there are so many opportunities for this coincidence to happen that it might well be only coincidence.

As former Facebook ads product manager, Antonio Garcia Martinez illustrated in his book “Chaos Monkeys”, when the text string “Obama” appears in the Facebook equivalent of a bar in Alabama on a Friday night, half the time it is preceded by the word “F***ing”, and you probably shouldn’t add that person to your “#Democratic Party”, targeting cluster“. Now if you were to add him anyway, because your automated speech recognition algorithm highlighted the word “Obama“, he would probably “X-out  every goddamn smiling Obama photo that’s going to take over his Facebook experience“, leading to the opposite of optimised ads targeting. In his opinion those allegations are simply overestimating the capabilities of the current tech state.

Furthermore, as Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt found out on their podcast Reply all, Facebook and co. would not even need to secretly listen to your conversations in order to create very precise ad targeting. They already know where you are, thanks to location tracking, they know your preferences when it comes to shopping, thanks to ad tracking, and they know who you are hanging out with and what those people like. Run these data points through a powerful enough algorithm and it doesn’t seem that far fetched that the results are creepily precise ads.

Put on your tin foil hat

As long as the tech giants won’t release their modus operandi, this conspiracy theory probably won’t go away. So, if you want to be on the safe side, disallow acces to your microphone for apps like “Instagram” and “Facebook”. And if you feel like letting your inner Sherlock Holmes out, try a few experiments suggested by some redditors. Either, put your phone near a Spanish channel for a few days or deliberately talk about a product you’re not interested in and check if you’re presented any atypical ads.

 

A propos de CŽedric RENEL

Étudiant en Master 2 Droit de l’Économie Numérique à l’Université de Strasbourg. La confrontation régulière avec le monde de la technologie a éveillé en moi une passion grandissante pour les nouvelles technologies et je suis particulièrement attiré par la variété et la complexité des situations générées par le développement de l’économie numérique.

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