If my phone isn’t listening to my conversations, how are ads appearing around things I was just talking about?

By James Bowman, Data Doctors

Location Tracking
As scary as it may seem that big tech is listening to everything we say, the reality of what they are doing is much more invasive.

Even if you turn off location tracking in every app you use, there are still ways to determine where you are at any moment.

Let’s start with your smartphone’s hardware which makes it uniquely identifiable via the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number combined with the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI).

This combination is what allows you to get a phone call or text message anywhere in the world, but it’s also a unique identifier that’s just the beginning of big tech’s tracking capabilities.

Even when you aren’t connected to a cellular network, Wi-Fi access points also have unique identifiers that make your location easy to figure out.

Group Location Tracking
Big Tech and credit card companies began sharing user information years ago. We routinely approve these arrangements when we click the ‘I Agree’ button that authorizes the app or service we’re using on our smartphone to share with third parties – which are huge advertising networks.

All of this collected data combined with the ability to determine your location goes one step further as they can see when users are near each other for an extended period of time.

For instance, when you get on an airplane and connect to the onboard Wi-Fi, every other person that connects to the same Wi-Fi at the same time is considered a ‘cohort’.

The accelerometer inside your smartphone allows them to confirm you were on the same flight as every smartphone indicated the same motion from turbulence at the same time.

A simple advertising approach would be to take the known primary interests of every passenger on the flight and start showing ads to every other passenger on the flight.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
This psychological phenomenon also called the ‘frequency illusion refers to the cognitive bias of how something that recently came to our attention now appears to be everywhere.

Going back to the airplane example, you have a conversation with a passenger about a product and now suddenly that product pops up in ads shortly thereafter.

If you didn’t have this conversation and the ad appeared because you were on the same flight, you probably wouldn’t even notice it amongst the thousands of other ads you unknowingly see every day.

If any of your active social media connections ever clicked on an ad for the same product, you’re even more likely to be targeted after the flight.

These are just simple examples that don’t even scratch the surface of how sophisticated today’s digital advertising machine has become, leading to the sense that they’re all listening to everything we say!