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Is Your Mic Being Used for Targeted Ads?

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Is Your Mic Being Used for Targeted Ads?

Genesis Sandoval, Editor

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The first time I believed a website was using my mic without permission was when I used Akinator as a kid. Turns out the site just uses Wikipedia and player feedback, but the thought always stuck in the back of my mind. Recently, however, this has been less of a paranoid thought and more of an Orwellian truth. All over the internet, people are asking the same question: “Are advertisers using my mic without my permission?” You’ve probably noticed it. You talk about something new with your friends, and then all of a sudden, you see ads for it all over the internet. It could be a weird coincidence, but people all over the world are noticing it. So, are advertisers listening to us through our mics? I decided I would sit in front of my phone and two laptops (a school-issued one and one for personal use), talk about something unrelated to me, and see if I get any ads for it. So what did I find out?

My experiment kind of worked. But not in the way I thought.

I talked about bunnies for five minutes. I don’t have a bunny, but I talked about food for bunnies, treats for bunnies, etc. At one point I mentioned my cat and whether or not a cat and bunny would work well together. I did get an ad for cat treats, but I do have a cat too. The ad was for treats she eats, but we’ve previously bought them on Amazon. There were a couple of ads for random things I didn’t pay much attention to as well.

One thing that did stick out, though, was ads for something I had talked about earlier. Earlier the same day, I mentioned a passing comment about a specific cable company while my school-issued laptop was in front of me. While searching for my bunny-specific ads, I noticed many, many ads for that cable company. It could be a coincidence, but I’m not entirely convinced. Every time I’ve noticed this happening, it was from a passing comment about Polaroid cameras or vacation spots. I know I sound like a paranoid conspiracist, but it’s hard to ignore all the evidence people have found proving this weird coincidence. Gimlet’s Reply All has a great episode on this subject (“#109 Is Facebook Spying On You?”) where the host can’t even explain some situations. It’s scary to think that your mic is constantly on, so what’s the proof against these targeted ads?

The obvious is that companies like Facebook and Google have a lot to lose if it came out that they were spying on you. While Facebook is very secretive about their ad practices, they’ve outright said they are not using your mic. In 2016, Facebook announced, “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.” And during Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous hearing, he was asked about Facebook spying through mics. He denied it once again. Another piece of evidence is how much data it would require to keep your mic on. Antonio García Martínez explains for Wired, “Constant audio surveillance would produce about 33 times more data daily than Facebook currently consumes.” Assumably, the same goes for other apps.

The idea of these targeted ads is definitely controversial, and it’s unclear depending on who you ask if our mic is always on. So what do you all think, is Google spying on us? Or is it all a crazy conspiracy? Maybe test it out yourself and find out.

About the Writer
Genesis Sandoval, Editor

Hi, my name is Genesis. This is my third year writing for The Pegasus. I’m a senior, and can’t wait to graduate. I listen to music often, and sleep...

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