Always Under Surveillance: Your Phone Could Be Listening and Watching

By Theodore Matheiss 
Elm Staff Writer

The other day I was in the library studying with my friend Dan. Another friend of mine came over to talk to us, and Dan complimented her jacket. She thanked him and told him the brand. About an hour later, scrolling down his Instagram feed, Dan saw an ad for the same jacket. Really, exactly the same jacket. Right down to the colors.

It’s one of those things that feels like it can’t just be a coincidence. Dan’s phone was sitting on the table during our whole conversation. It was just sitting there, apparently turned off, but we all know phones aren’t completely off just because the screen is black.

We allow several apps to access our microphones, like Snapchat for example, and once an app has access, it has it all the time. With voice recognition programs like Siri, it’s not a stretch to suppose that Dan’s phone was listening to our whole conversation, heard Kate mention the brand of her coat, heard him compliment it, and dropped an ad for it on his Instagram feed.

This makes me want to throw my phone in the nearest trash can. We live in an age of unmatched surveillance. Even the parts of our lives that we don’t voluntarily cast onto social media are constantly monitored and examined. As long as I have my phone, I’m always walking around with two cameras, a microphone, and a GPS on me. I have to assume they’re on all the time now, just observing, waiting for information.

Think about how much of your information is stored on the internet. It knows your credit card information, search history, phone number, and home address. It can determine where you shop, what you eat, and who you vote for, based on your online trends that can be tracked and analyzed. All the data you give to the internet can be mined by digital cookies and interpreted by machine learning algorithms, then sold to companies that want to know more about you and what’s going to get you to buy their products.

It calls to mind a story I read in Forbes about how Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her own father did. The father barged into his local Target one day, demanding to see a manager. The reason? Target was sending her advertisements in the mail for nursery furniture and maternity clothing. “She’s still in high school,” he said. “And you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

It turns out Target was sending her these advertisements because a data analyst working for Target named Andrew Pole had been hard at work developing a system that could detect potential pregnancies based on purchasing habits. According to Forbes, “as Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a ‘pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.” It would seem that the man’s daughter was buying some of those 25 products.

The manager at that Target called the father a few days later to apologize again for what seemed like a mix up. It was then that the father told the manager he’d learned some new information. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology,” he told them.

God forbid a private entity, or the government, decided to use the gold mine of online information for reasons besides advertising. I’m not saying it’s time to break out your tin foil hats or anything, but we should all be more aware of our technology and what it can do, because one thing’s for sure: it’s aware of us.

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