Are your devices listening to you? Marketer says absolutely. - The UpStream

Hero Image

Are your devices listening to you? Marketer says absolutely.

posted Sunday Dec 17, 2023 by Scott Ertz

We've all had the experience of talking about a strange product or service with a friend or family member, and the next thing we know, we're getting bombarded with ads for that same product or service. This experience has led many to claim that their devices are listening to them and using private conversations to create targeted marketing campaigns. While most companies claim that this is science fiction nonsense, CMG Local Solutions, a part of the Cox Media Group, claims that it is doing exactly this. But, are they?

The device spying theory

We all carry devices with us that have microphones in them, from phones to watches. Plus, many other devices in our lives, including smart speakers, televisions, and even thermostats, have microphones built into them. The devices in our homes have mics to enable us to ask questions or control smart home devices, such as lights, HVAC, and more. The mics are supposed to be passive until a wake word is spoken, such as Alexa, Siri, or Cortana.

The theory, however, states that the wake word is simply a software trigger for the smart device, but the device is always listening. This, for sure, is true, as that is how a wake word would work. The device must be always listening, but early firmware on the hardware waits for a wake word to trigger the actual device software. But, if this isn't really how it works, the devices could easily be listening to everything that happens in your home or office. If that's the case, someone could capture those recordings and then send them to a central server to create advertising profiles.

The theory heats up

CMG Local Solutions, a division of Cox Media Group, claims on its website that this is not only possible but actively being done. A specific solution page for Active Listening has a hero image that says, "It's True. Your Devices Are Listening to You." A blog post claims that it is able to use microphones in your TV, smart speakers, phones, and more to collect conversational data and, using AI technology, creates an advertising profile for you. The blog goes on to boast,

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.

Following a report by 404 Media, a lot of attention was raised about this technology and the breach of trust and privacy it would create. The attention created another problem - awareness of the likely lack of technological capability to actually do this. To actively listen constantly, CMG would need more computing power than the average television or speaker has. They would also need an amount of bandwidth that would rival Netflix - all just to generate an advertising profile? The claim is dubious at best.

As part of a retreat from the claims made on the website, the company sent an email to Ars Technica saying,

Advertising data based on voice and other data is collected by these platforms and devices under the terms and conditions provided by those apps and accepted by their users, and can then be sold to third-party companies and converted into anonymized information for advertisers. This anonymized data then is resold by numerous advertising companies.

Seemingly as if to admit defeat, CMG Local Solutions has taken down all references to Active Listening services. The page and blog posts are both gone (though archived here: website and blog).

So, in conclusion, CMG Local Solutions seems to have been making claims that were not true, or at best exaggerating what was and was not capable in the technology, and has now backed away from these claims.


Login to CommentWhat You're Saying

Be the first to comment!

We're live now - Join us!



Forgot password? Recover here.
Not a member? Register now.
Blog Meets Brand Stats