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Cox Media Marketers Boast About Listening to Phone Conversations

Big Brother is here, and there is no reason to believe it will stop at targeted ads.

Have you ever discussed a specific topic on your phone – say, white-water rafting – and then had your email or social media accounts hit with targeted ads promoting a trip to the Big River Rapids a day or two later? It turns out your suspicions were right after all. Big Corporate Communications is indeed monitoring your private conversations.

“A marketing team within media giant Cox Media Group claims it has the capability to listen to ambient conversations of consumers through embedded microphones in smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices to gather data and use it to target ads, according to a review of CMG marketing materials and details from a pitch given to an outside marketing professional,” 404 Media, an online investigative news site, reported in December.

Introducing ‘Active Listening’

GettyImages-1397821896 phone

(Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

“Called ‘Active Listening,’ CMG claims the capability can identify potential customers ‘based on casual conversations in real time,” 404 writes. And there you have it.

“In a Nov. 28 blog post (which also has been deleted), CMG Local Solutions said its ‘Active Listening’ technology can pick up conversations to provide local advertisers a weekly list of consumers who are in the market for a given product or service,” Variety reports. “Examples it cited of what Active Listening can detect included ‘Do we need a bigger vehicle?’; ‘I feel like my lawyer is screwing me’; and ‘It’s time for us to get serious about buying a house.’”

How disturbing is this Cox Media description of the possibilities presented in this brave new advertising world? As per Variety:

“‘Imagine a world where you can read minds. One where you know the second someone in your area is concerned about mold in their closet, where you have access to a list of leads who are unhappy with their current contractor, or know who is struggling to pick the perfect fine dining restaurant to propose to their discerning future fiancé,’ CMG Local Solutions said in the blog post. ‘This is a world where no pre-purchase murmurs go unanalyzed, and the whispers of consumers become a tool for you to target, retarget, and conquer your local market.’”

Anyone who has ever owned a cell phone or surfed the Internet is aware how sophisticated, and intrusive, targeted advertising has become in recent years. Here’s a personal testimony, for what it’s worth.

GettyImages-1806403546 oysters

(Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

I despise cell phones and still regularly use a landline phone that is part of my Comcast Internet account. On Christmas night, I was chatting with my brother and we happened to discuss our mutual love for shellfish. Forget the plum pudding; crab legs and whale-sized lobsters were dancing in our heads.

For the next two or three days, I received multiple emails from a noted chain restaurant touting its big-boy lobsters. A trip to Facebook resulted in a pop-up ad for snowcrab legs. Anecdotal? Yes. But this absolutely happened. As has been proven repeatedly in so many ways of late, it’s not a conspiracy theory if they’re really doing it.

Triggering Your Phone to Snoop on You

An article in Vice addressed the issue in 2018. The apt headline: “Your phone is listening and it’s not paranoia.” The piece explains how your smartphone, smart TV or other appliances can eavesdrop on your private discourse via “triggers” that spot an advertising opportunity.

“For your smartphone to actually pay attention and record you, there needs to be a trigger, like ‘Hey Siri’ or ‘Okay Google’ for example,” Vice relates. “Without these triggers, there’s no recording, with just some general metrics being sent to your service provider. This might not seem a cause for an alarm, but when it comes to apps like Facebook, no one knows what the triggers are. In fact, there could be thousands.”

Apparently, “lobster” can be a trigger. And just about anything else you can imagine that can be sold for profit can, too.

Dr. Peter Hannay, a “senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterisk,” says “apps like Facebook or Instagram could have thousands of triggers,” the article continues. “An ordinary conversation with a friend about needing a new pair of jeans could be enough to activate it. Although, the key word here is ‘could,’ because although the technology is there, companies like Facebook vehemently deny listening to our conversations.”

“Really, there’s no reason [these companies] wouldn’t be” doing this, Hannay stated. “It makes good sense from a marketing standpoint, and their end-use agreements and the law both allow it, so I would assume they’re doing it, but there’s no way to be sure.”

It’s rather astonishing that Americans have come to accept this constant encroachment on their personal lives without significant pushback. But a more frightening specter arises from all this, and it should be even more jarring when one considers the ever-widening polarization in US politics today.

Hannay added that “just because tech companies value our data, it doesn’t keep it safe from governmental agencies,” Vice added. “As most tech companies are based in the US, the [National Security Agency] or perhaps the CIA can potentially have your information disclosed to them, whether it’s legal in your home country or not.”

Given that we have a government and state security apparatus that have admitted to spying on Americans, gathering data on Americans, and of using that information in prosecutions, how much should the people trust a ruling establishment to only look out for commercial word triggers?

After all, if you can get the word “lobster” to trigger the eavesdropping of a US citizen’s private conversation, you can certainly get words like “Trump” or “(bleep) Joe Biden” to do so as well.

Oh, but what’s to worry? Surely, an administration that regards parents who question their local school boards as potential terrorists and allows the FBI to conduct elaborate surveillance operations against traditional Catholic mass-goers would never use this kind of technology against the rest of us?

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