Instagram, Facebook, Alexa - are you all listening?
13 Mar 2019 - Estimated reading time: 1 min
While hosting dinner for friends the other night, we were browsing some pictures on a friend’s Instagram. I mentioned, and we discussed, a clothing brand that she had never heard of. The next morning, her Instagram was full of adverts for that brand. It seemed like too much of a coincidence. So I did some digging.
If you search ‘Is Instagram listening?’ the internet is full of stories from people with similar experiences.
Is it naïve to think that the internet companies would take such a huge legal/PR risk secretly recording people’s conversations to deliver targeted ads (and who knows what else)? And particularly when you don’t give that permission in the Ts&Cs?
The alternative could be that my friend’s location services had shown she was staying at my home and the algorithms had linked that to a delivery I’d received from the brand earlier that week. To my mind, this alternative is no less disconcerting: it simply underscores the amount of data being harvested on us, the way it’s being passed on and used, and the inferences being drawn from it.
It also reminds me of a story I heard about Alexa (as in Amazon’s home assistant). A newsreader in San Diego recounted a tale of how a 6-year old in Dallas had said ‘Alexa order me a doll’s house’. To her joy, not so much her parents’, a Sparkle Mansion Dolls house arrived along with a consignment of cookies. But it didn’t stop there. Amazon Echos in the homes where the news was broadcast attempted a San Diego-wide pink dolls house purchasing spree. The news station was inundated with complaints.
While that’s funny in one way; it’s not in another. Are we happy to have the Big Tech Brother eavesdropping in all our conversations? And for our daily private chit chat to be used to build a very accurate profile of us and our children to be passed on to advertisers and others? Or are we comfortable with the value exchange we’re entering; of giving our data over in return for the services or other utility we get?
I personally think we need to be better informed about what we’re handing over in that exchange. And to be better informed of the consequences of that.
It feels like there is a growing awareness of that. But it also feels like we have some way to go.
If you’re not so keen on the idea of apps listening in on yours, your friends’ or family’s conversations, go into your phone’s settings and into ‘privacy’ then ‘microphone’ and turn it off for the apps you don’t need it for. I’m afraid I have no tips on smart TVs or home assistants.
It would be great to hear views on what else we can do to bring this higher up the agenda, doing more than just changing the settings on our phones?
We've a dedicated group on LinkedIn which is focused on the issues that affect our society and on the actions we should be taking to help future generations. Please do get involved. You can join the conversation here.