Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. As a Man Thinketh in His Heart . . .

 

After numerous startling Facebook suggestions echoing sentiments I’d expressed aloud less than twenty-four hours before, I’ve quit fighting the idea that some apps on our devices are picking up on our conversations to suggest products and articles that suit our needs. Too far-fetched? How about this? I feel old and tired, I remark to my sister as we ride together in the car. The next day, an article with helpful tips appears in my feed. The title: “Feeling Old and Tired?” I took a screenshot of this stunning example of eavesdropping devices.

Then there was the time someone said to me, Not everyone appreciates me being frank and honest. The next day, there in my newsfeed, in case I needed to read up on the topic, was the article, “The Virtues of Frankness and Honesty.” Coincidence? Probably I had more chance of winning the lotto than encountering a coincidence like that.

The disturbing trend of intrusive suggestions includes products that came up in conversation. Did I casually mention that I was looking for a better pair of walking shoes? No worries, FB will bring footwear ads to my attention. Worse, my daughter is sure that Pinterest is tracking eye movement to bring up items similar to what she has been viewing. Her friends think so, too. I am not dismissing this idea.

All this is eerie enough, but I have a question that is going to sound weird. If you have been noticing the device listening pattern, do you ever get the feeling that the devices aren’t just listening, but they almost know what you’ve been thinking, as well? You see an ad and think, how on earth did FB know? It gets downright creepy. Okay, before you dismiss this impression as paranoia and move on to another post, I have a twofold explanation for the mind-reading phenomena.

First, some of the ads oddly parallel to your recent thoughts are merely coincidences. You probably think about products and topics that are trending. Second, and this is the meat of my post: in a sense, devices are reading our thoughts. Here is what I mean. No matter how hard we try, we cannot hide who we really are. And who we are starts in the mind, with our thought patterns. Our affections, resentments, worries, interests, and obsessions, along with the neediness, selfishness, and pride—all of these leak out of us directly and indirectly, and will not be suppressed.

I think that FB and other sites zone in on our preferences based on a combination of our conversations, texts, private messaging, e-mails, Internet searches, and—yes—what we briefly rest our gaze upon as we scroll down a page. In sum, these give a limited picture of our thoughts. This explanation does not soften the intrusive edge of these data-gathering practices. But looking at it this way does remind us of an inescapable truth of the human heart.

Now I just have to figure out why I get that daily promotion for porn-filtering software.

There are 24 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. RightAngles Member

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

     

    • #1
    • April 6, 2019, at 3:28 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Belt Member

    I’ve seriously considered leaving my phone powered off when I’m not actually using it. I may install a microphone blocker app just keep unauthorized apps from eavesdropping. Mostly I’m just getting really sick of the surveillance society that we’re increasingly tethered to.

    • #2
    • April 6, 2019, at 3:35 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  3. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeekaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

    I don’t have Alexa or a smart TV. However, I’m glad my daughter took Messenger off my phone. But I’m still careful about what we say openly in the house. It’s weird when we sometimes have to carry on personal conversations (ones I don’t wish to see an ads for) in whispers standing in my own kitchen. 

     

    • #3
    • April 6, 2019, at 4:09 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Cow Girl Thatcher

    Once, I was writing a story about the farm machinery I had used as a kid/teenager, so I looked up the picture of a harrow to put on the blog post. Immediately on Facebook, my ads were all about plows and harrows and manure spreaders. Sheesh….But it is really, really creepy to have only talked about something, and then have ads for it pop up on your internet access. Creepy…

    • #4
    • April 6, 2019, at 5:08 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. RightAngles Member

    I was emailing a friend (on gmail) once years ago that our new puppy was a handful and I wished there could be a puppy boot camp. Within seconds, Google ads popped up saying “Be All You Can Be! Join the Army!”

    • #5
    • April 6, 2019, at 5:11 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I often see ads pop up for the kinds of things I buy online. But I don’t know if I’m getting articles that reference things I speak about. I’ll start checking. And simply turn off the phone when I’m not using it. It is creepy.

    • #6
    • April 6, 2019, at 5:12 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Mark Camp Member

    Belt (View Comment):

    I’ve seriously considered leaving my phone powered off when I’m not actually using it.

    Folks need to know that modern electronic devices (even a stereo or television) are not, in general, fully powered-off when

    • the user simply thinks that he has “turned it off”, or
    • when the user interface (the power light, e.g.) indicates that they are powered off.

    I don’t know if the engineers enabled, or disabled, the operation of the microphone or the video camera, under the control of users or a subset of users with an Internet connection, when a given smartphone is in the “powered-off” mode. It could vary from device to device.

    Either technical requirement is equally easy to design and implement.

    It would be foolish to assume that AV devices are disabled when the phone is “powered off”, if it is important to you. I would check with a knowledgeable expert, instead. Otherwise, I’d assume that the microphone, video camera, and accelerometer (which detects your motion), and WiFi and cellular transceivers (which allow your geographic location to be tracked second by second) can all be turned on by at least some authorized group, plus presumably all hackers eventually.

    Remember that Google was caught a year or two ago by the Wall Street Journal for routinely collecting second-by-second GPS data on smartphone users, as well as the information of whether they were in a car or walking. You could NOT stop them by disabling communications! They stored the data on your phone, and the moment you connected to Wifi (whether you noticed or not) they collected the data.

    I actually researched it when I read the article, to determine whether powering off my iPhone would block them. I remember trying (unsuccessfully) to figure out how to completely power off my iPhone, so I guess I must have discovered that either they are, or they could be. 

    Why do I think I know that it’s easy? It only requires general knowledge of electronics to know that that is true, kind of like Mona Lisa Vito in “My Cousin Vinnie” whom Mr. Trotter acknowledged as being an expert in General Automotive Knowledge, and I have that level, as a BSEE with focus on digital design who had a very broad, thirty-five year HW/SW technical career; I don’t have enough knowledge to tell you the answer to what any given device can or can’t do as designed.

    Also, it isn’t a simple question, although it isn’t a trick question, like the one Trotter asked Miss Vito about the ignition timing on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor.

    The engineers provide levels of security, so even if they enabled power-off AV function under some circumstances for some users, they wouldn’t have given it to all users, but rather only to users with a specific level of access.

    • #7
    • April 6, 2019, at 6:00 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Randy Webster Member

    I will never, ever have a smart device in the house that’s connected to the internet.

    • #8
    • April 6, 2019, at 6:31 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Kay of MT Member

    Go into settings – then go into Safari and start reading. I have Safari turned off and most of everything else. I don’t use google or face book or any other social media. I was grossed out the first time Siri talked back to me that I started exploring my iPhone, dang, but, but don’t you know that apple never, ever, cross thier hearts would abuse you.

    • #9
    • April 6, 2019, at 7:13 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. Henry Castaigne Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

     

    Can I make out on a sofa in some one else’s home?

    • #10
    • April 6, 2019, at 10:32 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. RightAngles Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

     

    Can I make out on a sofa in some one else’s home?

    Haha

    • #11
    • April 6, 2019, at 10:33 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Mark Camp Member

    It’s creepy being spied on and not knowing when it is happening, or who is doing it. I used to think that, with my relatively high knowledge technology, I could something about it that was worth the opportunity cost.

    I’ve come to realize that I can’t.*

    Here is the consolation. I realize that I am protected from spying by the fact that no one in the world would waste the effort spying on me: I am certain that I don’t do anything that’s interesting to spies. A married couple eventually reaches the age when the rest of the world would only pay not to see them make out, for example, and this one has reached that age.

    I don’t care anymore because they don’t care.

    = = = = = = = =

    *Disclaimer:

    • mass intimate espionage is a very complicated subject
    • to understand it takes a lot of technical knowledge
    • this discovery took a long time to figure out

    I am stating simple facts here, and explaining why

    • I have ample reason to think that there’s little that I (or you) can and want to do about being possibly spied upon in our homes, houses of worship, workplaces, and automobiles,
      and
    • instead of giving evidence for that belief, I am committing the fallacy of argument by authority, and appear to be wasting your Ricochet time with boasting.

    (Regarding boasting: I’m more ashamed than proud of having spent so much of my life acquiring such useless knowledge, that portion of the knowledge that was beyond what was required to earn the keep of my wife and kids and myself.)

    • #12
    • April 7, 2019, at 4:37 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Randy Webster Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    (Regarding boasting: I’m more ashamed than proud of having spent so much of my life acquiring such useless knowledge, that portion of the knowledge that was beyond what was required to earn the keep of my wife and kids and myself.)

    Some of it’s just fun.

    • #13
    • April 7, 2019, at 4:40 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Belt Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Belt (View Comment):

    I’ve seriously considered leaving my phone powered off when I’m not actually using it.

    Folks need to know that modern electronic devices (even a stereo or television) are not, in general, fully powered-off when

    • the user simply thinks that he has “turned it off”, or
    • when the user interface (the power light, e.g.) indicates that they are powered off.

    Yup, I agree with everything you wrote. When I mean ‘powered off’ I mean that hold in the power button and tell it power off from the interface menu. But I also know that I’m taking this on faith. Same goes for my Fire tablet. When my laptop and desktop are off, they’re off, and I have a piece of tape over the webcam on there anyway.

    I’m considering ‘muzzling’ it with something that would slip over the microphone and physically preventing sound from reaching it. Maybe I could start a business selling cheap little clips that you can pop on and off the phone that have a bit of foam that blocks the microphone. Some sort of physical barrier…

    • #14
    • April 7, 2019, at 5:45 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. Full Size Tabby Member

    Belt (View Comment):
    I’m considering ‘muzzling’ it with something that would slip over the microphone and physically preventing sound from reaching it. Maybe I could start a business selling cheap little clips that you can pop on and off the phone that have a bit of foam that blocks the microphone. Some sort of physical barrier…

    Excellent idea.

    One of the law firms I worked with handed out small plastic covers to put over the camera on laptop computers. It had a sliding door so I could use the camera when I wanted. Much more stylish than the Post-It note most people use to cover the camera. 

    • #15
    • April 7, 2019, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Paul Erickson Inactive

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

     

    Can I make out on a sofa in some one else’s home?

    How about the back yard? Though I guess the drones would monitor you.

    • #16
    • April 7, 2019, at 12:43 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. James Lileks Contributor

    Facebook is the worst thing ever. The good news: it’s doomed, because demography is destiny. The Youth of Tomorrow has no interest in it. Yes, they’re all on Instagram, a Facebook product, but it’s not the same, and they’ll dump that platform when something better comes along, which it will. 

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

     I was grossed out the first time Siri talked back to me that I started exploring my iPhone, dang, but, but don’t you know that apple never, ever, cross thier hearts would abuse you.

    Apple is trying to make their money by selling you cool things, rather than giving you something free and exploiting every bit of data they can resell. Safari will (if it hasn’t already) incorporate Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which limits persistent cookies to the sites you want to use. I use Safari and there’s not a single targeted ad that suggests some omnipotent source is trying to tailor the ads for my Ideal Online Experience. 

    I have an Amazon Echo, and there’s no correlation between domestic conversation and ad suggestions. 

    Much of the problem comes from junky lousy ad networks that infest the internet. At best, they peddle craptastic links to click farm sites – PJMedia pages are laden with this dreck. Sites that use Disqus commenting system (like mine) are another portal into the world of Stopping Toenail Fungus (Do This Tonight), and I regularly have to readjust my defaults because Disqus keeps forgetting that I don’t want the ads to appear on my site.

    At worst, the sleazy ad networks are vulnerable to RTB (Real Time Bidding) exploits that inject malevolent code into the page and hijack links, resulting in lots of traffic that means absolutely nothing, but sustains the bizarre world of zombie ads and inflates the true value of clicks and eyeballs. Online advertising is a bag of hurt, as the man said, and this will eventually force a crash in the market that will damage the bottom line of sites that rely on crap ads, and push more people to use ad blockers that hurt legit sites.

     

    • #17
    • April 7, 2019, at 9:56 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    Sites that use Disqus commenting system (like mine) are another portal into the world of Stopping Toenail Fungus (Do This Tonight), and I regularly have to readjust my defaults because Disqus keeps forgetting that I don’t want the ads to appear on my site.

    Yeah, I block Disqus just like I block Facebook — at my routers. It isn’t quite as evil as FB, but it is further under people’s radar. Website owners should just say no. (It means I can’t even see the comments at some of my favorite sites — a minor annoyance.)

    • #18
    • April 8, 2019, at 2:14 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    sawatdeeka: Worse, my daughter is sure that Pinterest is tracking eye movement to bring up items similar to what she has been viewing. Her friends think so, too. I am not dismissing this idea.

    Not eye movement; your scroll wheel. Let’s say you’re glancing at a post with eight pictures on it. It takes half a second to look at something you don’t want to see, but you’ll pause for maybe three seconds on something you do. Gives ’em all the effect of tracking your eye movement while being much easier to implement.

    You know, because that makes you feel better.

    • #19
    • April 9, 2019, at 9:29 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Here is the consolation. I realize that I am protected from spying by the fact that no one in the world would waste the effort spying on me: I am certain that I don’t do anything that’s interesting to spies. A married couple eventually reaches the age when the rest of the world would only pay not to see them make out, for example, and this one has reached that age.

    Security through obscurity isn’t the best plan. The whole nature of targeted advertisement only works when you’re able to be slotted into a database. If a real human being has to think about you to get it to work it’s no longer cost effective.

    I expect that it won’t be limited to annoyances like advertising for long either. How long do you think it’ll be before someone builds the first automated blackmail engine?

    • #20
    • April 9, 2019, at 9:36 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Vance Richards Member
    Vance RichardsJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Over the summer I was visiting some family members in Massachusetts. They had just moved to the state and were mentioning how they needed to get MA drivers licenses. The next day I got a promoted ad saying “How to apply for a MA drivers license”. I never searched on that or looked it up, but I did have my phone with me when we were talking.

    • #21
    • April 9, 2019, at 9:37 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeekaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Over the summer I was visiting some family members in Massachusetts. They had just moved to the state and were mentioning how they needed to get MA drivers licenses. The next day I got a promoted ad saying “How to apply for a MA drivers license”. I never searched on that or looked it up, but I did have my phone with me when we were talking.

    That’s just creepy. How do the big companies think that level of listening is going to be acceptable to the public? Do they think you’re going to eagerly click on it going, “Ah, there’s the answer I’m looking for.” Also, it’s not hard to Google something if we are curious enough. 

    I just received another uncanny suggestion: at the top of “people you may know” was someone I’ve been wondering about lately because I haven’t seen them around. It felt like mind-reading, but when I thought hard enough, I realized I had mentioned this name to one of my girls not too long ago. 

    Several months ago, I was introduced to a family I’d never met and had some conversation with them. When I checked Facebook afterward, their formal family photos were prominent in my feed. Should have been okay–it was a photographer I follow. But still, the timing was strange. 

    • #22
    • April 9, 2019, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Mark Camp Member

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Over the summer I was visiting some family members in Massachusetts. They had just moved to the state and were mentioning how they needed to get MA drivers licenses. The next day I got a promoted ad saying “How to apply for a MA drivers license”. I never searched on that or looked it up, but I did have my phone with me when we were talking.

    That’s just creepy. How do the big companies think that level of listening is going to be acceptable to the public? Do they think you’re going to eagerly click on it going, “Ah, there’s the answer I’m looking for.” Also, it’s not hard to Google something if we are curious enough.

    If the iPhone’s privacy-critical devices (especially, microphone, camera, and radio transceivers) had simple on-enable-off switches*, then pirates like Google and Facebook would be able to prey only on customers who “leave the front door unlocked,” legally and in the minds of ordinary people. This would greatly diminish the problem of secret abuse of customers for ill-gotten profits.

    Perhaps these aren’t sold simply because the market wouldn’t support them.

    But consider the possibility that the market would support them:

    • Enough people would pay, say, 100 bucks extra for such a model (I would!) to make investment in such consumer-friendly products a good business decision for Apple, not counting the opportunity cost of not having, in effect, a covert monitoring device on every customer’s person, 24/7.

    It is at least conceivable that that is the case, too:

    • producers know that it would be profitable,
      and
    • therefore a reason they don’t offer such a product is exactly that resultant loss: not being able to spy on their customers.

    Note: when I say 100 bucks extra, I mean in the general economic sense: 100 bucks, including higher actual price plus imputed costs like decreased reliability, increased weight etc. Imputed costs must be considered because one legitimate (i.e., customer-driven) reason for eschewing physical switches wherever possible is that they are comparatively expensive to produce, inflexible, bulky, and subject to wear-related gradual failure over time.)

    *and hardwired “on-enabled-off” indicator lights, similar to the flashing red “recording” light on an old video camera

    • #23
    • April 10, 2019, at 8:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy WeivodaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Creepy, isn’t it. Do you have a “smart” TV? Or Alexa? If so, they are eavesdropping on you and selling the info they hear to third parties. When Facebook came out with their app, it accessed the microphone on your cell phone and listened in on the room.

    So it isn’t the best idea to talk about that great weed you got last night, or even to make out on the sofa in your own home.

     

    Can I make out on a sofa in some one else’s home?

    I’d encourage it!

    • #24
    • April 13, 2019, at 8:14 AM PDT
    • 1 like

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.