Too close for comfort

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media monitoring is a critical step in any social media strategy. If you’re not listening to what your consumers are saying about you then what are you doing, besides just mindlessly shooting products and services out into the universe and hoping for the best? That, my friend, is called traditional marketing, and it’s on the outs.

So what’s in? Conversations. Dialogues. The quintessential two-way street – we now live in a world where they talk, we talk back, they listen, and voila.

two man and two woman standing on green grass field

Photo by on

After emerging myself in a sea of social media research, my mind buzzing from an overload of catchy social media tool names like “Buffer” and “Sprout”, I couldn’t help but think about the very big elephant in the room; the question that constantly plagues me, but one I’ve been too afraid to Google, until now.

My question is: we know companies are listening to us – but exactly how close are they listening? And how close, is too close?

adult blur business close up

Photo by Pixabay on

The dark side of social listening

Black Friday recently passed us by. You know, Black Friday? That one day of the year that might as well be triathlon training for company Christmas sales? So I was texting my friend about going on a big shopping spree. I said I needed a new TV. She said she wanted a new vacuum, but a cute little modern one.

Literally less than 24 hours later, I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed and what do I see? Cute, little modern vacuums. Bursting out of the page, at $279 a pop.



Weird right? But it didn’t stop there. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed that day, I saw a whole lot more than the usual posts of my cousin’s baby dancing to Ariana Grande.

I saw TVs. Everywhere.

Best buy, the Source, Walmart – each and every one of those mass conglomerate mongrels knew I was on a mission to enhance my living room entertainment experience, and they were on me like white on rice.

Has this ever happened to you? Honestly this has happened to me so many times now, that the initial fright and sense of violation has sort of worn down into a warm, gooey glob of acceptance. Maybe this is just the way things are now?

Getting to the bottom of it

Trust Vice to tell the real story about what’s going on. Vice writer Sam Nichols interviewed Dr. Peter Henway, senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix and according to him, it’s true: our phones are listening.

It would appear that in order to actually record our conversations, our phones need to hear some kind of trigger word, like “Google” or “hey Siri”. But as the article states, “in the absence of these triggers, any data you provide is processed within your own phone” – meaning, any third party applications you have, like Facebook, still have access to this “non-triggered” data, and it’s up to them whether or not they want to use it.

Peter goes on to say that from time to time, little bits of audio clips trace back to social media servers from your phone, but there’s no way to know what triggers send them there. These apps on your phone could have thousands of unidentifiable triggers: from a regular WhatsApp chat with your friend about vacuums, to a quick snapshot of TVs from your online Best Buy cart.

So, are they listening?

What worries me is that just because these apps “could” utilize this technology, we still can’t know if they actually do – especially Facebook, who recently denied that they listen to our private conversations. But Peter said that Google already openly admitted they do, so what’s stopping Facebook from doing the same?

Seemingly struck by the same curiosity as me, Peter decided to test this theory and purposefully utter a bunch of phrases out loud that could theoretically be used as triggers. If you finish the article you’ll either be shocked, scared, or intrigued (depending on how you feel about all this), to see what happened.

In the end he said we don’t really need to worry. Unless you’re a lawyer or journalist protecting some secret pile of sensitive information, you pretty much just have to go about your consumerist life the best you can. And if you’re curious, most of these posts provide the option to “read why you’re seeing this ad”, so I guess that level of transparency can be somewhat reassuring?

Privacy vs. Acceptance

I turn the floor to you guys. Does this kind of revelation worry you? When I do personal inventory of my relationships, it seems like all the baby boomers in my life are in complete shock and disgust of all this, but all my Gen Y peers don’t really seem to mind. They’ve become warm gooey globs of indifference, just like me.

Is it just because technology’s quips and quirks simply don’t surprise us anymore? Are we just numb and immune to it all, having grown up with it? Should we be more outraged that this is actually happening?

Oh and in case you were wondering, I did manage to get a TV. $400 off. You win this time, Best Buy!

– –

Facebook post: Social media monitoring is key for big businesses to thrive. We talk, they listen, and better products are made for our enjoyment. But where do we cross the line with how much we let them hear? Does strategic listening mean eradicating private conversation all together? Read more here:

Twitter post: We know big companies are listening, but just how close it too close for comfort? Read more here: #privacy #social



4 thoughts on “Too close for comfort

  1. Hello,

    As an avid ‘window online shopper’ this happens to me all the time! After a little bit of investigation I learned that part of this “Spooky reoccurrence” is due to the “Acceptance of cookies” on the website. This just relates back to the pop up window that asks if you’ll allow cookies. I have absolutely no idea how the ‘cookies’ work on transferable devices at completely different times, but the line is definitely being crossed in my opinion. I understand online marketing and that the more you see an item the more inclined you’re going to think back about it, but as you mentioned in your post one has to think about if strategic listening mean eradicating private conversation all together?

    Great read on a VERY relevant topic!

  2. Interesting topic indeed! It reminds me of the Edward Snowden interview on NBC back in 2014. In the interview, Snowden was talking about how mobile devices can be used by governments to record you. In another more recent interview, he reiterates that devices that are designed to listen for commands could be used maliciously. (

    Stories like this really drive the message that you should always watch what you are saying home.

    But going back to your story, I have often experienced what you have. I’ll be chatting about something, my phone within earshot, next thing I know, it’s popping up in the adds on my hotmail inbox or in my Facebook feed.

    Thanks for this! It was a great read.

  3. A friend was recently telling me a story about cat food. He and his girlfriend wanted to change brands and they had the discussion in the comfort of their living room one evening. He woke up the next day to a bombardment of cat food advertising. They could only trace it back to their smart phone being on the living room table when they talked about it.

  4. Your blog is compelling. 60 minutes asks who owns your data as was the article in Discussion arena. Here, it is Facebook. We gave it to them. In the European Union, they say people own their information. As mentioned Alexandra does have a course regarding Social Media Privacy and Security. It’s always been an issue. It is important, as you have, to address it.

    CBC Marketplace, should one look on their website showed where apps were specifically designed to tap into your smartphone and literally follow you. So they know where your billboards are located, they know where your boyfriend, girlfriend, or intimate friends live, they know what stores, community centres and malls you frequent. That is worth money to divorce lawyers, advertisers, business opponents, litigators, and others I shan’t mention due to conspiracy theorists and challengers.

    Nonetheless, a good heartfelt blog. As a matter of content, you can change things as a matter of effort and research. The European Union will not put up with this. Why should we? Contact an Mpp and MP. Tell everyone including your network and fellow bloggers. It is certainly worthwhile. Look at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. They are dedicated to protecting your privacy collectively.

    Good pictures and sub headings. I like the example of a $400 discount. That mention gave me good ideas just for a topic related to yours. It illustrated a good premise as to whether they can buy our privacy.

    The Henway observation would have made a good refernce to follow as you have my complete attention specific to thais article. We do have a discussion forum for students only. We could chat about that if anyone wishes to do so. I’m certainly game. Congratulations, you’ve inspired me to action through your blog.

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