Marketer sparks panic with claims it uses smart devices to eavesdrop on people

We’ve all experienced it or heard about it happening: Someone has a conversation about wanting a red jacket, and then suddenly, it seems like they’re seeing ads for red jackets all over the place.

Makers of microphone-equipped electronics sometimes admit to selling voice data to third parties (advertisers). But that’s usually voice data accumulated after a user has prompted their device to start listening to them and after they’ve opted into (preferably not by default) this sort of data collection.

But a marketing company called CMG Local Solutions sparked panic recently by alluding that it has access to people’s private conversations by tapping into data gathered by the microphones on their phones, TVs, and other personal electronics, as first reported by 404 Media on Thursday. The marketing firm had said it uses these personal conversations for ad targeting.

Active Listening

CMG’s Active Listening website starts with a banner promoting an accurate but worrisome statement, “It’s true. Your devices are listening to you.”

A screenshot from CMG's Active Listening website.
Enlarge / A screenshot from CMG’s Active Listening website.

A November 28 blog post described Active Listening technology as using AI to “detect relevant conversations via smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices.” As such, CMG claimed that it knows “when and what to tune into.”

The blog also shamelessly highlighted advertisers’ desire to hear every single whisper made that could help them target campaigns:

This is a world where no pre-purchase murmurs go unanalyzed, and the whispers of consumers become a tool for you to target, retarget, and conquer your local market.

The marketing company didn’t thoroughly detail how it backs its claims. An archived version of the Active Listening site provided a vague breakdown of how Active Listening purportedly works.

The website previously pointed to CMG uploading past client data into its platform to make “buyer personas.” Then, the company would identify relevant keywords for the type of person a CMG customer would want to target. CMG also mentioned placing a tracking pixel on its customers’ sites before entering the Listening Stage, which was only described as: “Active Listening begins and is analyzed via AI to detect pertinent conversations via smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices.”

The archived version of the page discussed an AI-based analysis of the data and generating an “encrypted evergreen audience list” used to re-target ads on various platforms, including streaming TV and audio, display ads, paid social media, YouTube, Google, and Bing Search.

That explanation doesn’t appear to be on the Active Listening page anymore, but CMG still says it can target people who are actively saying things like, “A minivan would be perfect for us” or “This AC is on it’s [sic] last leg!” in conversations.

But are they actively listening?

In a statement emailed to Ars Technica, Cox Media Group said that its advertising tools include “third-party vendor products powered by data sets sourced from users by various social media and other applications then packaged and resold to data servicers.” The statement continues:

Advertising data based on voice and other data is collected by these platforms and devices under the terms and conditions provided by those apps and accepted by their users, and can then be sold to third-party companies and converted into anonymized information for advertisers. This anonymized data then is resold by numerous advertising companies.

The company added that it does not “listen to any conversations or have access to anything beyond a third-party aggregated, anonymized and fully encrypted data set that can be used for ad placement” and “regret[s] any confusion.”

Before Cox Media Group sent its statement, though, CMG’s claims of collecting data on “casual conversations in real-time,” as its blog stated, were questionable. CMG never explained how our devices would somehow be able to garner the computing and networking power necessary to record and send every conversation spoken within the device’s range in “real-time,” unbeknownst to the device’s owner. The firm also never explained how it acquired the type of access that requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant. This is despite CMG’s blog claiming that with Active Listening, advertisers would be able to know “the second someone in your area is concerned about mold in their closet,” for example.

CMG’s November blog post pointed to an unnamed technology partner that can “aggregate and analyze voice data during pre-purchase conversations,” as well as a “growing ability to access microphone data on devices.”

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