Ruwandi Perera delves into snoop tech and its algorithm driven realities

Have you ever had a conversation or even thought about something… and a few hours later, seen it on Instagram or Facebook in the form of an ad? If you haven’t experienced this so far, you probably will!

There are hordes of smartphone users around the world who will swear that their phones are listening to them. And while it seems acceptable and even obvious for us to be tracked by our devices when we interact with them – such as when typing or browsing online – it seems preposterous that our devices may be listening to us when we’re having human to human conversations or even thoughts!

So is it a coincidence, a conspiracy, amusing, scary, useful or annoying?

How you look at these targeted digital ads depends on your take on personal privacy. Setting aside the fact that many are more delighted than distraught to find content and ads that magically appear on their newsfeeds, some may say that it can be annoying or even illegal and downright invasive.

But are we truly private? Because after all, online privacy is a tricky business.

Every time we install an app, join a social media platform, send a message, upload a document or browse, the internet gathers our data. And even if we delete these actions, the stored data isn’t necessarily emptied.

When we interact with digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google, they need to remain switched on to respond to our commands and serve us better. Give and get – give data and get convenience!

Jokes aside, the question of whether technology listens to our offline conversations has been repeatedly directed to social media leaders. And while the creators of these platforms have denied these claims, the validity of their answers could be doubted when logical reasoning and credible evidence are considered. And so the question remains.

The assumptions, myths and conspiracies mount as well, and this is where sneaky phones are thought to be the work of secret government operations and invasive alien races. But let’s not go there at this time!

While it’s understood that social media platforms are a form of business designed to benefit advertisers and sponsors more than users, there’s some truth to the defences put forth by social media organisations.

It’s apparently all in the algorithms because they’re way smarter than we give them credit for, thanks to AI.

Our devices and social media platforms track everything – our likes, comments, hashtags, groups and browsing behaviour – including for how long we stop in our scrolling frenzy to look at pictures of dogs. They also track our location, friends and interactions with them.

So even if you don’t actively interact with something but your friend does, you’ll be on the receiving end of a targeted ad.

Why? Because it makes sense!

Let’s look at it in a simple way. Assume you’re hanging out with a friend and talking about doing something such as paddle boarding, which you’ve never done before.

Now if your friend has had some form of interaction with related content – perhaps liking related posts, watching paddle boarding videos or even going into a shop that sells paddle boards – artificial intelligence will use all the data it has on the two of you to come to a reasonable assumption that you too might be interested in that activity.

This might be fuelled by the extent of online interactions you and your friend have, your proximity to the paddle board shop and even how often you like pictures of the ocean! The algorithm is listening to you, though not in the way you think.

So is this bad?

Not necessarily; but it could be, when it’s happening illegally through spyware, malware or hackers. And it depends on how private you want to be. For instance, receiving ads about a new dessert shop might be okay but getting targeted ads for jobs in Australia on a smartphone provided by your employer might be problematic!

However, you can avoid this problem by verifying the apps you download, reviewing agreements that seek permission to access your details and phones, deleting your voice command history and even simply keeping your software up to date to stay virus free.