We’ve all suspected our devices are listening to us. How else could the clothing company you just told your sister about over brunch show up as a targeted ad on your Instagram feed? The tech community has largely denied listening without our permission.

In fact, in 2017, Facebook had to publicly deny that it listens to its users (that’s what they use location services and ad tracking for). But Cox Media Group (CMG), a multibillion-dollar media empire that owns and operates TV and radio stations worldwide, admitted it’s doing just that.

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HOW ARE THEY DOING IT?

404 Media gathered published marketing information from CMG and determined that it uses AI to identify conversations via smart devices – collecting information about our spending behaviors, interests and how we spend our time – to deliver ads to us. CMG calls it “Active Listening.” Though any mention of CMG’s Active Listening platform has been removed from its website, the archived information is still accessible.

A document published by CMG’s VP of digital strategy said, “Yes, our phones are listening to us,” and “CMG has tech capabilities to use to your business advantage.” For example, it claimed to use audio data to create detailed customer profiles, which benefits consumers (fewer irrelevant ads) and businesses (targeted marketing). Still, no one knows exactly how they do it, technically speaking. Would it still adhere to safety restrictions imposed by companies like Apple that prevent other companies from listening to its devices? No one knows.

CMG later published a statement saying, “CMG businesses do not listen to any conversations or have access to anything beyond a thirdparty aggregated, anonymized and fully encrypted data set that can be used for ad placement. We regret any confusion…” Business Insider states, “It’s important to note that it’s not clear whether this technology and marketing is actually happening.” Nevertheless, this incident is an important reminder to refresh your privacy settings and pay attention to the real possibilities of companies listening in.

ADJUST YOUR PRIVACY SETTINGS NOW

Although tech leaders like Google and Apple have policies around how and when they listen to you, fake apps and shady companies do not. Any app with access to your microphone could listen to your most private conversations.

Take a moment and really look at the permissions you’ve given your apps. Ask yourself, does this app really need to listen in? If it’s not essential, it’s better to revoke that microphone access in your device’s settings. Another smart move is to tweak your settings so that an app can only use the microphone while you’re actively using it. Finally, never download apps unless you know how, when and why they collect data about you, especially voice data.

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