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‘My phone is eavesdropping on me’: How we are being spied on, but not in the way you imagine


By Amanda Cassidy
05th Sep 2023
‘My phone is eavesdropping on me’: How we are being spied on, but not in the way you imagine

Are our phones spying on us? Amanda Cassidy investigates.

Earlier this week, as I do every day, I walked my dogs around my neighbourhood. It was blissfully uneventful. I listened to Adele, nodded at an older man and noticed a house named Hy Brasil – something I remembered from Irish mythology at school.

So far, so utterly bland.

Until later that day, when an advertisement for music from a band named Hy Brasil popped up on my Instagram feed.

I hadn’t mentioned the name out loud, lingered or texted it to anyone. I passed the names of about 100 houses – but that was the only name I noticed registering – it stood out.

Suddenly this felt less of a coincidence and more like I was being spied on.

I discussed it with friends who admitted they were blown away by strange crossovers that they felt couldn’t be explained by simply a manipulation of our interests.

‘I never buy Cadbury’s dark chocolate fingers’ my friend admits. ‘But at the supermarket one day I looked at them and considered it for the first time. I moved on, didn’t buy them and never mentioned it to anyone. Later that day I got targeted ads for Cadbury’s dark chocolate fingers.

Invasive

Another friend said she’d got a fright and called out when her daughter almost caught her fingers in the door. All the next day she got ads for plastic door-stoppers.

Targeted advertising has become so uncanny that it is easy to think that we are being surveilled in a way that may not make everyone comfortable. It is starting to feel invasive.

Rumours that internet companies are listening to our conversations have repeatedly been denied, despite pages and pages of similar examples that are hard to dismiss.

But wiretap usage is illegal. Besides, it would also involve storing copious amounts of large data and software capable of sorting through all the nuances of human language.

Uncanny

But perhaps we are stuck in the 20th century way of what we consider to be ‘spying’. Two New York-based tech artists worked on a four-year project examining if and how big internet platforms might be targeting us in such a sophisticated way.

Tega Brain and Sam Levigne collected first-hand examples to collate an explanation for what is actually happening.

“What we want to show is that you are being spied on, but not in the way that you might imagine,” Brain said. “But really there is this whole new sensory apparatus, a complicated entanglement of online trackers and algorithms that are watching over us.”

They refer to this new sensory apparatus as ‘new organs’. “They don’t have to actually listen to your voice to know you like things – they actually have ways of coming to know things about you that we don’t fully understand yet.”

In other words, these new methods of data collection are so freakily accurate in their knowledge of you as to occasionally feel indistinguishable from actual ears listening in on and understanding intimate conversations.

Reaching for the tinfoil hat yet?

It’s a neat trick. But not one that everyone is aware is going on around them.

Research shows that we check our smartphones an average of 96 times a day, which works out to once every 15 minutes. Social media companies admit they exploit our dopamine receptors, designing products to hook us, such as irregularly timed rewards.

So when you think of buying a new pair of running shoes – it is because an ad flashed up first and manipulated you? Or did you linger geographically near numerous ShoeLocker shops and the algorithm gotcha?

Know you better than you know yourself

This ‘which came first the ad or the desire to buy’ scenario is what drives sales. It is NLP on speed. And it is all around us. All the time.

These sensory ‘organs’ track online activity, they find out what people like, what they search for, listen to, read and, worryingly, who their friends are and what they like, what they purchase and what they search for.

Commercial data (bought from commercial data brokers about people’s offline lives) like how many credit cards they have, what they eat, what they buy when they go food shopping is all collated.

This is then triangulated with family and friends. Once a frighteningly detailed picture emerges (might be as innocuous as ‘listens to Spotify’ or ‘practices yoga’ or as sensitive as ‘lives away from family’, ‘catholic’) new predictive portraits can be formed.

In other words, they can second guess what you might want or plan next. This is sold to advertisers who can target products you don’t even know you want… yet.

Future

The paranoia will only intensify in this age of mass surveillance. At any time your phone knows if you are outside, what you’re listening to, who you are talking to or arguing with, what you like, hate, who you love, what you eat, your plans for the weekend, for next year, for your future.

This reflects an undeniable truth of our digital age: that we are being watched by technological organs that we don’t fully understand.

Mysterious

What’s even more disturbing than being spied on by machines? Brain says that not even the marketing people and data scientists completely understand how the algorithmic distribution of their content works.

“They’ve created this big black box that perceives and understands the world in a way that is so complex that it is actually mysterious. And even they don’t fully understand how.”

This article was originally published in November 2021.