It used to be that if you wanted to know something, you searched for it. Algorithms would determine the best results to show you, based on your query, you’d click on them, find out what you wanted, and the world was a happy place.
Then the algorithms improved. They started being able to guess what you were going to search based on your history, a few words, a cross-comparison with others’ search terms. At first it seemed helpful, because you found you could find things you wanted faster and easier.
But then, people began to be able to pay for their results to show up first. The obvious ones, of course, were labeled as ‘Ads’, but the sneaky ones passed themselves off as information, when in fact they were pushing an agenda, political or otherwise. South Park once did an entire season on this.
Of course, this was all contained within the realm of internet searches. So long as you didn’t search for something, it was unlikely that sponsored content would come your way, and of course if you got lots of porn spam, we all knew why. But then, the smart phone came out. Devices with cameras and microphones that started to listen continuously, waiting for “Hey Siri” or “Alexa”, or whatever other smart assistant you use.
And then, the true genius of the ad came into play. Under the guise of privacy, when an app – say, Facebook – requests access to your microphone, it’s a yes/no decision. If you want to use Facebook to live stream, record little videos, or communicate with people, you have to choose ‘yes’.
But there’s a more sinister side to this. Granting Facebook access to the microphone grants it access at all times – whether you’re using the app or not. And whilst Facebook has gone on record as stating that they don’t use the microphone to inform advertising, it’s entirely possible their hordes of advertisers are not so scrupulous.
I used to not believe this, until I noticed that certain items would show up in my feed, just minutes after discussing them in person with a friend or family member. It’s happened too frequently, and too specifically, to be a coincidence (me thinks).
I doubt that any information gathered via call logs or microphones will be used for malicious intent, and certainly would be inadmissible in the context of crime investigation, but it does get a little scary to think – what if something I say in confidence ends up determining what I see online?
The wider-reaching consequence of this, more likely, is that it supports confirmation bias – the idea that we only seek out information that agrees with our world-view in the first place. The more we talk about things we believe in, the more of that will be shown to us, reinforcing our belief – whether or not it’s misplaced.
And that’s a dangerous thing.