The less tech-savvy might worry that the phone itself is somehow spying on our conversations. This is not true—though if you’re still not convinced you can change the settings on your phone to reduce the amount of data apps can collect.
When you have a face-to-face conversation with a friend or a partner in a private setting and you pick up your phone, you see ads on social media that echo the details of your chat to an uncanny degree—ads for picnic baskets after a discussion of weekend barbecue plans, or a sale on flights to a place you just mentioned wanting to visit.
Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist whose “Time Well Spent” movement aims to reclaim time and attention from digital devices, explained what’s actually going on with those spot-on ads at a recent panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles.
No secret recording is involved, but his description still offers an eye-opening perspective on the amount of data advertisers have at their disposal: “I know for a fact, the data forensics show, and the Facebook VP of advertising says, promises, that they do not listen to the microphone. How is it they’re still able to know the conversation you had?”
“It’s because inside of a Google server or a Facebook server is a little voodoo doll, avatar-like version of you. Like a model of you. And I don’t have to listen to your conversations because I’ve accumulated all the …clicks and likes you’ve ever made, and it makes this voodoo doll act more and more like you.”
“All I have to do is simulate what conversation the voodoo doll is having, and I know the conversation you just had without having to listen to the microphone.”
That’s right: a voodoo doll made up of your clicked links, location, likes, demographic information and other digital hair clippings is babbling away in a server somewhere – and it’s so lifelike it’s actually mimicking your conversations.
So no, your phone isn’t spying or recording your IRL conversations. They know you by the choices you make, so they don’t need to spy on your conversations.