There has been a big debate about whether apps like Facebook and Instagram are listening to you through your phone.
In a “things that make you go hmmm…” moment, The Verge recently wrote a story, Apple says its T2 chip can prevent hackers from eavesdropping through your MacBook mic. It said Apple’s hardware has “a rather clever hardware-specific defense against mic eavesdropping that can’t be tampered with using remote software controls.” Why do you need a security chip if apps say they aren’t listening to you? This follows a 2016 article in The Independent, that cited a University of South Florida professor who believes Facebook picks up ambient conversation for ad targeting.
It’s clearly still an ongoing debate (Sam Sheffer recently discussed it on his podcast). But as NYU’s Scott Galloway said in his book The Four, “If you carry a cell phone and are on a social network, you’ve decided to have your privacy violated, because it’s worth it.”
Privacy is so passe
I agree with Galloway, but I’m also skeptical of the claims Facebook and Instagram is always listening to you.
You always hear the stories about some friends talking about a certain beer, then voila, they start getting ads for that beer in their Instagram feed.
First, Instagram has a massive treasure chest of data. It knows if you’re likely to buy some very specific product because. You’re just a nameless profile, but you’ve been put into a bucket with a lot of people just like you.
Second, we all suffer from recency bias. It’s like when you see an actor in once commercial. Then you start seeing her in a bunch of other commercials, television shows, and random movies.
If you talk about a relatively obscure beer with your friends, your eyes and ears are perked up at all sights and sounds of that beer for the next few months. That beer is more prevalent than you think.
The point of all this is, does it really matter?
Should we get freaked out about whether apps are or aren’t listening to you? Because we are all more than happy to put an Amazon Go or Echo, or Google Home, or Apple HomePod into our homes – knowing damn well those devices are listening to us.
Many might be a bit too freaked out by smart devices to keep one in their home. Count me in that category. But the rest of us still use these apps and products on a daily basis, giving up SO MUCH MORE data and information about ourselves than anything Instagram can glean by listening to my inane conversations with my friends. “Did you see Derrick Rose put up 50 the other night?! Can’t get much from that.
Even worst, our ISPs are allowed to collect all data we send through their pipes and to turn around and use them for marketing purposes. Before 2017, this wasn’t permitted. (See: The Verge, Congress just cleared the way for internet providers to sell your web browsing history). That seems to me to be a much bigger deal than apps. It’s more invisible, but a lot more intrusive.
I’m not arguing whether it is right or wrong for apps to spy on us. We should all just recognize it is happening one way or the other. Cortana on your Windows devices? Bixby on your Samsung devices? Your Comcast voice-activated television remote? Your TV itself (The Intercept: Wikileaks Dump Shows CIA Could Turn Smart TVs Into Listening Devices)? It may or may not be happening on these devices.
But if that is true, then I don’t mind getting rosé vodka ads or thermostat ads served to me on Instagram because I talked about it recently. I’ve got other, bigger privacy things to worry about.