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That customer service agent you’re chatting with might be watching you type in real time

Published Dec 2nd, 2018 12:48PM EST
You're being watched
Image: imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

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Big Brother is watching you, and so it seems are many customer service agents you chat with online. Apparently, they can see what you type in real time — everything you type, every time you erase and start over, all with most people generally unaware of the degree to which they’re being scrutinized.

Yes, those online agents are increasingly able to follow along with what you type before you ever click “send” — a button that Gizmodo’s ace privacy reporter Kashmir Hill went so far as to describe in a piece this week as just “an illusion.” What brought this up? Well, a number of things, actually.

A Gizmodo reader wrote in recently and shared with the site the transcript of a chat with a mattress company’s customer service agent. In that chat, the agent responds to messages the reader hadn’t even sent yet. The transcript shows that the Gizmodo reader eventually figures out the agent must be able to watch them type before they hit “send,” and so the reader asks: “can you see the messages I’m typing before I send them?

“We get a preview :)” is how the agent responds.

“that doesn’t seem right to me,” the reader shoots back, drawing this reply: “Gives us a little bit of extra time to look up information :)”

Also this week, HmmDaily writer Tom Scocca posted a feature looking into this same thing, including some details about an in-depth answer he got from a customer service agent he was chatting that came just one second after he pressed “send.” That led him to a Google search that turned up the names of companies that produce technology for enterprise customers offering this very feature, a kind of “message sneak peak,” with one such service he found boasting very clearly about its ability to let you “see what the visitor is typing in before they send it over.”

Kashmir’s Gizmodo piece makes clear this is all able to happen via JavaScript operating in your browser that captures everything happening on a site in real time. Should you be creeped out? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it. It probably depends on your larger philosophy around privacy. The unwitting aspect of this — the fact you don’t know you’re being studied — may rightfully bother some people. For others, if it increases the utility of a service, this probably isn’t even remotely a concern.

Worth noting, this is also just a digital version of a practice that’s not new, by any means. The New York Times reported (more than a decade ago!) that those customer service phone calls where they record you for, you know, quality control purposes? Let’s just say, you should probably be circumspect when you’re on hold, because even then, whatever you’re doing is probably being recorded, according to the Times. From that piece: “It is at these times that monitors hear husbands arguing with their wives, mothers yelling at their children, and dog owners throwing fits at disobedient pets, all when they think no one is listening.”

Moral of the story: Assume you’re being listened and paid attention to more than you think.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.