You’re sitting at happy hour with your go-to gals, catching up over half-price frosé. “I love this dress,” you tell the pal to your right. “Thanks! I got it on super-sale at Anthropologie.” “So cute.” Just like that, you move on to the next topic.
Later that night, you get home and open Instagram. You know you shouldn’t be looking at your phone so close to bedtime, but you can’t avoid the siren song of the explore page. Nestled between vacation pics and gym selfies (groan), you see it: An ad for Anthropologie—a brand you do not follow—touting its current sale on, you guessed it, dresses.
It’s harmless enough (the dress in the photo is actually really chic and you make a note to see if they have it in your size), but it makes you wonder: Is my phone listening to me at all times?
Depends on who you ask. The social media sites you think are listening to you, of course, categorically deny audio spying. Reddit sleuths, on the other hand, are convinced that the tech giants in Silicon Valley are obsessively tracking our every move and word.
In a 2018 op-ed for Wired, Antonio García Martínez, the first ads targeting product manager on the Facebook Ads team, explained that recording and saving your every word isn’t logistically possible. “Constant audio surveillance would produce about 33 times more data daily than Facebook currently consumes,” he told the site. “The harsh truth is that Facebook doesn’t need to perform technical miracles to target you via weak signals. It’s got much better ways to do so already.”
One of those methods is Facebook Pixel, a technology Martínez created during his tenure at the site and explained on an episode of the “Reply All” podcast. Basically, when you go to one of the millions of sites with Facebook Pixel on it, it watches what you do and reports that information back to Facebook. “It can see how long you linger on a certain webpage; it can see if you purchase something; it can see if you put something in your cart on a website and decide not to buy it. It’s kind of like an internet surveillance camera.”
Facebook (and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook) also allows advertisers to advertise certain products to the friends of people who have either purchased or shown interest in that product. So maybe, instead of listening in on your conversation, Instagram tracked that your friend spent a lot of time scrolling through Anthropologie’s dress sale, knew that you followed each other on Insta and, using location services, saw that the two of you were together.
Furthermore, a 2018 study at Northeastern University found no evidence of an app unexpectedly activating the microphone or sending audio out when not prompted to do so. Per one of the paper’s authors, David Choffnes, “We didn’t see any evidence that people’s conversations are being recorded secretly. What people don’t seem to understand is that there’s a lot of other tracking in daily life that doesn’t involve your phone’s camera or microphone that gives a third party just as comprehensive a view of you.”
So basically, while your phone probably isn’t listening to you, it’s using complex, mostly secretive technology to track your every move without having to listen to you. We’ll leave it up to you to decide which is creepier.