Have you ever engaged in a discussion regarding a product or a holiday destination, only to find ads related to that exact subject popping up on your social media feed shortly thereafter? It appears to be more than just a mere coincidence, doesn’t it? Well, it could very well be more than that.
Many people, including myself, have encountered situations that give the impression that social media platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp are actively monitoring our conversations. Despite the platforms’ claims of not engaging in eavesdropping, this phenomenon continues to raise concerns.
In reality, social media apps consistently gather extensive quantities of data concerning us. They analyze our posts, likes, shares, locations, and private messages. However, the data collection doesn’t end there. Certain reports indicate that these apps may even gain access to our device’s microphone, enabling them to eavesdrop on our conversations.
I was taken aback when I came across a tweet from a user mentioning that their microphone was being utilized by WhatsApp while they were asleep.
To which WhatsApp replied:
We believe this is a bug on Android that mis-attributes information in their Privacy Dashboard and have asked Google to investigate and remediate,” the company said. It said WhatsApp only uses a phone’s microphone when the user is making a call or recording.
However, one can never be certain. Let us consider another user’s point of view, where they began receiving advertisements for their mother’s toothpaste after using it for a week at her residence. This Twitter user called Robert Reeve claims to have never discussed or Google about it.
Here is the tweet:
In this particular instance, Robert clarifies that this occurrence is not due to any social media application actively listening in. They assert that they have never discussed or searched for it online. Here are their exact words:
If my phone is regularly in the same GPS location as another phone, they take note of that. They start reconstructing the web of people I’m in regular contact with. So. They know my mom’s toothpaste. They know I was at my mom’s. They know my Twitter. Now I get Twitter ads for mom’s toothpaste.
I seem to agree with what he is trying to explain. Companies involved in ad-targeting meticulously create comprehensive profiles of our interests by analyzing our searches, demographics, and behaviors. They weave a network of individuals we spend time with using our GPS location data. With all this information at their disposal, it becomes effortless for them to show precisely targeted advertisements. This situation can be unsettling and make us question the extent to which our privacy is compromised.
There are several possible theories that could provide explanations for why we encounter advertisements that align with our conversations.
- One of these theories is known as “frequency illusion,” which describes the phenomenon where once we’ve learned something new, we suddenly start noticing it everywhere.
- Another explanation could be related to ad targeting groups: Advertisers tend to group people with similar interests. If you see a certain ad, there might be a chance that people “similar” to you did already search for it online (while you are still only talking about it).
- Another theory relates to the idea that social networks like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok are consistently monitoring our whereabouts and interactions. Theoretically, they can track which Wi-Fi networks we connect to or detect nearby devices through Bluetooth or Bluetooth Low Energy. This surveillance could elucidate why you encounter ads for a product that a friend has been searching for online (and that you have also talked about).
Although there is no definitive evidence proving that social media apps actively listen to conversations, there have been worrisome incidents and studies that raise concerns. Certain employees at companies such as Amazon and Google have confessed to listening to voice recordings obtained through devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Although these incidents are distinct from social media apps, they underscore the possibility of eavesdropping and data collection.
It is crucial to understand that social media platforms thrive on data. They depend on analyzing our conversations, online activities, and even our offline behaviors to deliver personalized advertisements. The greater their knowledge about us, the more effective they become at predicting our needs and desires.
Can I stop being tracked?
Remember, while privacy might seem like a myth in the digital age, we can still adopt measures to regain a certain level of control over our personal information. By staying informed and taking proactive steps, we can navigate this interconnected world with a better understanding of the trade-offs between convenience and privacy.
There are permissions that you can adjust to restrict the tracking and utilization of your information by social media apps. However, if you are actively using any social platform, it already has sufficient data to “learn” and target your potential interests for advertising purposes.
Coming across digital ads shortly after discussing a certain topic is not a mere coincidence. While I doubt that there are individuals sitting in a warehouse wearing headphones, actively listening to our conversations, or that it is feasible for them to process vast amounts of collected data, technology is indeed monitoring our behaviors to make assumptions about our future purchasing inclinations.