From Listening to “Active Listening”

Active listening is not just a form of therapy anymore; it’s a data collection technology funneling to advertisers to target you better.

December 25, 2023

By: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

Active ListeningIt’s become almost a meme that nearly every digital device in our homes is in some way tracking, watching, or listening to us. You can picture something like:

I tell a joke. I laugh.

My guests laugh.

My microwave laughs.

Many have leaned into it, though. They like the idea of being able to shout out, “Alexa! Play my favorite song!” and their favorite song starts playing.

As we saw earlier this year, we don’t have the kind of control we think we have with these services. From voyeurism to getting locked out of your own home, SMART devices have a checkered track record.

On the one hand you have convenience and efficiency, and on the other you have the compromise of privacy and security that has been exploited and used against people.

Civil libertarians will semi-jokingly acknowledge they have a designated Fed Boi monitoring them, depicting them from the van crying or disgusted with what they are forced to watch because the content is in such horrible taste.

We’ve come a long way from fearing our wires being tapped to assuming they are, and asking it to earn its keep by turning on our appliances on command.

It’s fair to say that trusting these large service providers to only use our information one particular way.

Google is eliminating the third party cookie which is about to enter a test phase to 1% of users of Chrome in first quarter of 2024. They are instituting their “Privacy Sandbox”. But according to the EFF:

“Even if it’s better than third-party cookies, the Privacy Sandbox is still tracking, it’s just done by one company instead of dozens. Instead of waffling between different tracking methods, even with mild improvements, we should work towards a world without behavioral ads.”

Google took a stab at something called FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), and that was shot down quickly because all it did was give Google even MORE control over advertisers and did nothing for consumer privacy.

Then they rolled out Topics which is an API for delivering interest-based ads gleaned from the web histories of Chrome users.

Presently, Topics is available in Google’s Chrome browser. Microsoft hasn’t committed but is testing some Privacy Sandbox technologies in its Edge browser, which uses Chrome’s Chromium engine. Mozilla and Apple have rejected Topics in Firefox and Safari respectively due to privacy concerns. And earlier this year, the Technical Architecture Group (TAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the web’s technical body, panned Topics for being opaque and diminishing user control.

These different rollouts of “privacy policies” look like they are just rearranging the veggies on the plate. It’s not actually doing anything about the veggies themselves.

Whether Google’s efforts are genuine or not, they aren’t the only juggernaut holding a massive share of access to private information and selling it to the highest bidder.

Cox Media Group (CMG) is leveling up their advertiser offerings. They are an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to 7 million homes and businesses in eighteen states in the US.

CMG allegedly claims that its Active Listening technology can spot potential customers in real-time through everyday conversations. It’s uncertain if this feature is on current devices, but CMG promotes it as a futuristic marketing tool that is “available today.”

This isn’t an OR situation. This is an AND situation. Your search engine is watching you, AND your ISP is listening to you.

This “active listening” is no joke. It’ll tap into your ambient conversations detected via your tablet, phones, and smart TVs.

CMG isn’t the pioneer in this space, by the way. There’s a company out of the “free state” of New Hampshire called MindSift that distributes this technology.

Andy Galeshahi, one of the cofounders of the company, says when discussing MindSift to potential clients: “I’ll say like, ‘Hey, have you ever talked about something and saw an ad for it?’ We’re the guys. That’s us. We distribute the tech. The technology has been around for a while but the torch has been passed.”

Among other major issues, “active listening” is similar to that of the “Fact Checkers” and “Community Standard” crawlers. It won’t understand nuance or sarcasm. So be prepared to get ads catering to your irreverent jokes and song lyrics you’re singing in the shower!

There are two things to consider here. The first is the desire for free access to things that cost money to operate. The second is the lag in regulations, and their otherwise incompetence in protecting you.

People are exhausted with having to subscribe to everything separately, and pay $10-$15 per month for each of them. While this is what decentralization looks like with everything being à la carte, the optics and feel of it is more like getting nickle-and-dimed.

People want open sourced things. But those things cost money. So how do you pay for it? Advertisers are the only ones willing to pay hand over fist for a few seconds of your attention, and eagerly do so. Far more eagerly than subscribers.

People then get frustrated that their platforms and content are at the whim and control of big advertisers rather than authentic. But to get away from advertisers’ control, you find yourself right back at subscription fees.

The privacy laws respond to what IS happening. They can’t anticipate what will happen. So with each new innovation, they let it play out, and then the laws get rewritten. And while governments might be keen on keeping your information safe from online advertisers, remember, they aren’t so keen to keep it safe from their watchful gaze.

So whatever new innovation comes along, rest assured governments the world over are very interested in it. While I’m not particularly thrilled with advertisers knowing things about me, at least they offer something useful. The government learns something about me, and they weaponize it at their leisure.

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