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Marketing company says it can eavesdrop on conversations through our devices

Published Dec 15th, 2023 4:29PM EST
Google Play on an Android phone.
Image: Google

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You might be among the many people who believe the conversations they have near their smartphones lead to seeing ads online related to products or services they might have discussed with others in real life. Or you might know people who think that.

The conspiracy theory will probably never go away, even though most iPhone and Android devices can’t actually spy on you. They have built-in privacy protections that will show you when and if your handset’s microphone is in use.

That said, there’s a brand new report you should check out. A marketing company claims in now-deleted marketing materials that it uses AI to eavesdrop on people speaking near devices such as smartphones, smart speakers, and smart TVs. AI is involved in the process, which results in more accurate targeting than traditional methods of tracking user interests online.

Considering the current tech landscape, these are very wild claims, and I’d be inclined to believe the marketing company in question is simply exaggerating its abilities. Either that or something more nefarious is afoot, especially with other types of smart devices mentioned.

Can smartphones eavesdrop?

I don’t think that any marketing company can use ad tech to spy on modern smartphones. The iPhone has protections against that, and I find it unlikely for a marketing company’s software to beat that. The newest Android phones also show microphone access. And I’d be equally surprised if a marketing company’s software can bypass this security.

I will point out that voice assistants on iPhone and Android are always listening for your voice input. But they’re listening for keywords that activate them, like “Hey Siri” on iPhone. It’s very unlikely a marketing company would be able to exploit such features. And you can always turn those off.

CMG's Active Listening claims from an archived version of a now-deleted web page.
CMG’s Active Listening claims from an archived version of a now-deleted web page. Image source:

As for smart speakers and TVs, I could see scenarios where such endeavors would be possible. A company might be able to take advantage of a software loophole that would give them uninterrupted access to the microphone. In turn, the use of AI would allow them to capture voice data and build advertising profiles for some users. How would they target those users with ads? That’s still unclear.

Active Listening technology

The wild claims come from a marketing team within media giant Cox Media Group (CMG), according to documentation that 404 Media found online (via 9to5Mac).

It’s important to note that CMG appears to have deleted these claims from its website. They probably don’t know you can’t erase stuff from the internet.

CMG claims to have access to microphones in smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices via a technology called “Active Listening.”

With it, CMG can spy on conversations in real-time for advertising purposes. It’s unclear how the tech would work, and the documents do not mention any type of devices that might have CMG software installed.

“What would it mean for your business if you could target potential clients who are actively discussing their need for your services in their day-to-day conversations? No, it’s not a Black Mirror episode—it’s Voice Data, and CMG has the capabilities to use it to your business advantage,” the company said, according to a saved document.

Examples of the conversations Active Listening would pick up an archived version of a now-deleted web page.
Examples of the conversations Active Listening would pick up an archived version of a now-deleted web page. Image source:

It does sound as scary as a Black Mirror episode, assuming the technology works. CMG says it can let businesses target exactly the buyers they want from specific areas in the proximity of the advertiser.

I did say a few days ago that Google’s Gemini tech might be used someday to create incredibly accurate profiles for advertising purposes. CMG’s purported tech isn’t that, but it’s still scary if it works. CMG says, “Active Listening begins and is analyzed via AI to detect pertinent conversations via smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices.”

The ads are then served via streaming TV, audio, display ads, YouTube, Google, and Bing Search.

Someone should investigate these claims

More disturbingly, the marketing materials that CMG uses claim that such eavesdropping behavior would be legal since customers agree to their phones listening to them when they accept the terms of use of software updates and app downloads.

404 Media also details the experience of a marketing professional to whom CMG pitched the eavesdropping tech. They apparently disabled microphone access on their devices after that.

“I immediately removed all my Amazon Echo devices and locked down microphone permissions on things like my phone as receiving confirmation they are doing things like this have confirmed my worst fears and I, for one, will not take part in it,” they said.

“Creepy? Sure. Great for marketing? Definitely,” reads a document showing a portion of the now-deleted CMG website pages. Everything about this certainly feels creepy. Either it’s all made up, or someone will have to investigate these claims. Because if they’re real, there’s plenty of explaining to do.

You should read 404 Media’s full report at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.