top of page
  • Writer's pictureLeedr

Is My Phone Listening to Me for Targeted Ads?

It's happened to us all... we've been discussing a brand or product and the next minute, you're getting served up ads for exactly what you were just discussing.

The notion that our smartphones might be eavesdropping on our conversations to serve targeted ads has become a widespread concern. So let's explore whether there's truth to the idea that our phones listen to us for advertising purposes.

Understanding How Smartphones Work

Smartphones are equipped with voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, which use the phone's microphone. These assistants activate under specific conditions, such as saying a wake word, but this doesn't mean they're always listening for advertising cues.

The Myth and Reality

Many believe that phones are constantly listening to conversations to target ads. However, this is largely a myth. As per sources like MakeUseOf and The Washington Post, while phones do listen for voice assistant functionality, they don't typically use these conversations for ad targeting.

Tod Maffin, in his Medium article, strongly refutes the idea that Facebook listens to conversations for ad targeting. He points out several facts:

  1. The bandwidth required to transmit all conversations for processing would be immense, far exceeding typical data limits.

  2. The sheer volume of users makes it impractical for Facebook to process millions of conversations.

  3. As a professional running Facebook ad campaigns, Maffin confirms there's no such targeting option based on conversations.

  4. Facebook has publicly denied engaging in such practices, and lying about this would pose significant risks to the company.

How Phones Use Data

Phones collect user data for behavioural advertising, building profiles based on internet activity, as mentioned by The Guardian. This is legal and often consented to by users, as Norton explains.

What this means in a nutshell is that advertising platforms like Meta and Google can get a pretty clear idea of what types of products you'd like based on your online activity like Google searches, interactions with brands, and demographic info about you.

Ok, your phone is listening.... but not like you think

It's true.

According to Ars Technica, advertisers embed ultrasonic pitches in TV commercials or play them when a user encounters an ad in a computer browser. These inaudible sounds are undetectable to the human ear but can be picked up by devices.

So, some advertisers are using your phone to listen for sub-sonic sounds emitted during some ads. This technique allows advertisers to track a user's interaction with an ad across multiple devices. For instance, an ultrasonic sound played on a TV ad can be picked up by a smartphone, linking the user's viewing habits across different platforms for reporting and attribution.

Even soccer fans aren't safe.

Spain's data protection agency recently fined La Liga, the nation's premier professional soccer league, a hefty sum of 250,000 euros (about $283,000 USD). The reason? La Liga's official phone app, which boasts millions of downloads, was caught spying on its fans. This intriguing case has raised eyebrows and concerns about privacy in the digital age.

The La Liga app is more than just a hub for soccer schedules, player rankings, and league news. Unbeknownst to many of its users, the app had a hidden feature that was quite controversial. When fans, armed with their smartphones, walked into bars to catch a game, the app kicked into surveillance mode. It would start recording audio through the phone's microphone to figure out if the user was watching a soccer match. The technology used was akin to what's found in apps like Shazam, which can identify music and media playing around you.

But here's the catch: the app wasn't just identifying the game for the user's benefit. It was checking if the bar had the proper license to show the match. Essentially, fans who downloaded the app for updates and live scores were unwittingly turned into informants against the very bars they frequented.

User Experiences and Anecdotes

Online forums like Reddit are filled with anecdotes about suspiciously timed ads. However, these are often instances of confirmation bias,

Many theories about phones listening are based on anecdotes and flawed reasoning rather than rigorous testing and evidence. People often recall and emphasize the few times they see relevant ads after a conversation, ignoring the many times when this does not happen.

How to Protect Your Privacy

For those concerned about privacy, there are steps to take:

  • Disable microphone permissions for apps where it's not necessary.

  • Use privacy-focused apps and settings.

So, while smartphones do have the capability to listen, there's no substantial evidence they use this ability for ad targeting. Users need to understand their devices' capabilities and maintain control over their privacy settings.

And if was the case that our phones were listening so ads could be targeted, marketers using ad platforms, would have access to this as a targeting source, but we don't.


Get this in your inbox

Get a helpful post every week in your inbox when you sign up. Cancel any time. 

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page