Are Phones and Smart Speakers Listening to You? Cox Media Group Claims They Can





The idea of smartphones and smart speakers listening to everything you say and then sending you targeted advertisements has been around for years, and has largely been debunked by privacy experts. But the marketing unit of Cox Media Group, which owns newspapers and local radio and TV stations around the country, says it can do just that with a feature called “Active Listening.”

Marketing materials found on Cox Media Group, first spotted by 404media, spells out how it uses “Active Listening” to identify potential customers “based on casual conversations in real time.” The materials spell out how it can use embedded microphones in phones, smart TVs, speakers, and other devices to gather the data. 404media shared some of the documents, that have been removed from the site, but you can see the main page here.

“With Active Listening, CMG can now use voice data to target your advertising to the EXACT people you are looking for,” the page says.

The claim seemingly confirms what many people have believed for years — that our devices are constantly listening to us. It’s something that privacy experts have previously said wasn’t feasible or necessary — with so many other ways for Big Tech companies to track your preferences and identity. But Cox Media Group is adding fuel to this idea and offering some fairly bold claims about what it can do.

Update: Cox Media Group responded by saying that it uses “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. 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.

“CMG businesses do 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,” the company added. “We regret any confusion and we are committed to ensuring our marketing is clear and transparent.”

Cox Media Group did not, however, address why it was marketing a service specifically called “Active Listening,” or why it touted its ability to listen to people through its devices.

As 404media notes, it’s unclear if this is something offered today, or if it’s a feature that will soon be available. The language in the materials suggests it’s something that’s available now though.

The materials claim to offer advertisers “a weekly roster of qualified customers who have spoken about their need for your service or product,” and asks them to claim their “exclusive territory.” It also includes a seven-step process for setting up a profile and using artificial intelligence to capture the data.

The act listening to your conversations would seemingly violate consumer privacy laws. But the site claims it is legal for phones to listen to you because of clauses found in the terms and conditions.

This comes as companies like Apple and Google have ramped up their stance on privacy, including letting you know through icons whether your microphone or camera are on and active.

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