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Your phone’s microphone is likely used to deliver targeted ads

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  • 4 min read

The marketing team at Cox Media Group (CMG), a media giant owned by Apollo Global Management and Cox Enterprises, asserts that it can eavesdrop on ambient conversations through embedded microphones in various devices to deliver targeted ads.

This revelation is straight out of a Black Mirror episode or a page of a dystopian novel like 1984, confirming that it was largely dismissed as a myth until now. 404 Media uncovered this information while reviewing CMG marketing materials and details from a pitch given to an external marketing professional.

The company claimed that its Active Listening technology is a “marketing technique fit for the future.”

However, we were directed to the home page when we tried to look at this new technology on the company’s website. It seems that the company removed the advertisement for this technology. When we researched a bit deeper, we found the removed blog post by the company detailing the technology.

“Active Listening gives organizations clarity into the most effective channels and timing for their advertising efforts. By incorporating and analysing customer data from conversations around smart devices, we can pinpoint where and when customers are most likely to engage with ads,” said the blog post.

The company can listen and identify keywords relevant to a client’s business interest. Moreover, with this technology, the company can analyse consumer behaviour and then integrate all the data points into an encrypted list.

While it remains unclear if this capability is actively deployed in current devices, the company emphasised its readiness for immediate use. CMG’s Local Solutions division specifically markets Active Listening, claiming to target ads precisely based on real-time conversations.

Web archive screenshot of the controversial blog post by the CMG Group. The post has been removed from the company’s website.

Potential clients are encouraged to claim a territory within a 10 or 20-mile radius, where Active Listening will analyse conversations via smartphones and other smart devices using artificial intelligence. The clients can also ask for more customisation and increase the range to target consumers on a regional, state and even national level. The company also asserts installing tracking pixels on clients’ websites to monitor return on investment.

The company’s lofty claims may land it in legal trouble as this technology violates many wiretapping laws. To counter this claim, CMG adds that consumers usually provide consent through terms and conditions, a long and boring document where we select ‘I Agree’ almost always.

“It is legal for phones and devices to listen to you. When a new app download or update prompts consumers with multi-page terms of use agreement somewhere in the fine print, Active Listening is often included,” answered the company under Is Active Listening legal FAQ.

As of now, the exact technical details of this technology remain scarce. But it is just a glimpse of what the big data combined with AI and a lack of consumer security concerns can do. Even your own homes and devices will be targeted for delivering ads. The social media platforms are already analysing the user behaviour for this purpose.

“With this unprecedented understanding of consumer behaviour, we can deliver personalized ads that make your target audience think: wow, they must be a mind reader,” boasts Cox Media Group.

You can access Cox’s removed Active Listening tech page here if it’s unavailable on the Internet Archive.

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Kumar Hemant

Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: kumarhemant@pm.me

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