Illustration by Ash Ramirez of targeted ads on a computer screen
Tracking cookies are bad until they show us some really great deals on cookies in the area. (Illustration by Ash Ramirez, Humboldt State University)

A Tentative Defense of Targeted Ads and Data Collection

We’re used to seeing them on social media and our initial reaction is often disgust. But what happens when we really scrutinize our hesitations?

Thoughts x
Illustration by Ash Ramirez of targeted ads on a computer screen

We’re used to seeing them on social media and our initial reaction is often disgust. But what happens when we really scrutinize our hesitations?

It has become increasingly clear that our smartphones listen to us. Scrolling through social media, I’ve noticed one too many targeted ads that are just too relevant to my earlier conversations for me to be able to write them all off as coincidences. As unsettling as it feels to be surveilled, and as much as we’d like to ignore or joke about it, the fact is that we are being listened to. And once we come to terms with that, we need to decide how we feel about it.

So what does “being listened to” actually entail? What information of ours is being accessed and by whom? And why should we care?

How Do Targeted Ads Work?

When I noticed topics of previous conversations magically appear on my screen later in the day, I felt like I was going crazy. But then I swapped stories with my friends who had similar experiences. “I was just talking about that musical with my sister and then lo and behold! Instagram was trying to sell me tickets to it an hour later!” We usually just laughed about the eerie coincidence and then brushed it off. How could it possibly be more than that? How was it possible for our phones to give us such targeted ads?

The technology required to listen in to our conversations is known to exist and to be used in familiar devices such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google smart speakers. The technology relies on verbal “triggers,” such as the familiar “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri.” When one such trigger is used in conversation, our devices begin to listen to us, and they can collect short snippets of what we say after we address them.

The same technology used by these devices to collect audio bits is also used by third party apps on our phones. According to Dr. Peter Henway, a senior cybersecurity consultant interviewed by Vice, some bits of audio processed by our phones are sent to the servers of apps like Facebook. To select which data to collect, these apps could potentially use several triggers we aren’t even aware of.

Rather than exclusively listening when we address them, as the Google Home or Amazon Alexa do, our apps could perk up their ears the moment we say “musical” or “college” or “airplane” — or scores of other words that naturally come up in conversation. With this information about our interests, apps can use the data to bring us targeted ads.

Apps are well within their technological and legal capacity to collect and use this data. But to be clear, entire conversations aren’t being recorded. Just as Google, Siri and Alexa only listen to snippets of conversation that immediately follow the familiar triggers, third party apps only collect the bits of conversation following their triggers. The scary part is that we don’t know which words in our conversations could be triggers.

We might think, though, that the collected data is safe because advertisers cannot access the snippets to create targeted ads. According to Henway, as of 2018, no company was selling data directly to advertisers.

However, the advertisers could still pay money to these companies to target their ads for them. The companies would then use the data they had gathered from our phones to pinpoint demographics that would be most responsive to that advertiser’s specific campaigns.

Initial Reactions

When I found out that it’s likely I really am being listened to without my knowledge, I felt as though my privacy was being violated. Instinctively, I wanted to protect myself and my data. After all, my right to privacy is important. I deserve to be able to act as I choose without the fear of being watched.

How I act when I feel like I’m being surveilled is very different from how I act when I have an expectation of privacy. I am much more guarded and self-conscious when I feel eyes or ears on me, and I can only fully relax when I can let this guard down. So naturally, I was initially unsettled by the revelation that I have been letting my guard down when there really have been ears on me.

Further Reflection

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was no reason I couldn’t still let my guard down, even knowing what I know now. My initial reaction of fear, shame and discomfort didn’t necessarily apply to this scenario the same way it would in a scenario where, say, I were to find out that someone had been hiding in the closet the entire time I was dancing to an embarrassing song from middle school.

Put simply, I don’t really identify with the type of data advertisers are interested in. I don’t really care if someone is in the closet just long enough to hear me say something about a musical I’ve been interested in seeing.

In fact, I’d almost prefer that advertisers did have access to this type of data. I’m like most people out there in that I crave customization. And targeted ads are a way of delivering that. In this enormous world chock full of information and products, it can be overwhelming to try and sift through it all. I know I’ve spent countless frustrating hours in the past trying to find products that are specifically relevant to me, many times to little avail.

Seeing an ad for something that is already tailored to my interests gives me a great head start. And sometimes I’m even grateful to see an ad relating to a conversation I’ve had in the past because it reminds me of something I may have forgotten.

However, it’s important to remember that I’m just one person. My opinion is coming from my own experience. For other people, targeted ads and the technology behind them could generate real concerns. Some people might dislike that customization could curtail their full range of choices. Additionally, for me and for people like me, the data we have is only going to be interesting to advertisers; for other people though, it’s a major concern that government agencies like the NSA could potentially, and often do, access data from tech companies.

 The Bottom Line

For people like me, the biggest objection we have to targeted ads and the technology they use is the discomfort of knowing our privacy is being violated. And while that feeling can certainly be valid in many situations, it’s helpful to interrogate its basis before we allow it to unilaterally inform our opinions and our stance on this particular issue.

If we initially feel protective of our data, it’s good to ask if protecting our data is really protecting ourselves. Upon reflection, I’ve found that my relationship to the data I leave on my smartphone isn’t much different than my relationship to the Starbucks cup I might leave in the garbage in a public place. Protecting this data isn’t protecting me because the data isn’t really all that personal or important to me.

While our initial, gut reactions can in many ways be helpful, it’s always good to check them sometimes to make sure they aren’t actually getting in the way of us helping ourselves.

Leave a Reply