US company uses wiretapping for marketing purposes

Mass surveillance

Published 20 December 2023
- By Editorial Staff
The media company CMG boasts of eavesdropping on private conversations.

A US company is now going public about its use of microphones in smart devices to collect conversations that are then used for targeted advertising.

The feature, called “active listening”, retrieves data from everyday conversations in real time through eavesdropping, which the company says is legal because consumers often “give consent when they accept terms and conditions”.

A marketing team at media giant Cox Media Group (CMG) claims it can listen to consumers’ conversations in the environment through embedded microphones in smartphones, televisions and other devices to collect data and use it to target ads, according to a review of CMG marketing materials by 404 Media.

CMG calls the feature “active listening” and claims it can identify potential customers “based on real-time, everyday conversations”.

“What would it mean for your business if you could target potential clients who are actively discussing their need for your services in their day-to-day conversations? No, it’s not a Black Mirror episode – it’s Voice Data, and CMG has the capabilities to use it to your business advantage”, the company writes on its website.

CMG is owned by Apollo Global Management and Cox Enterprises, which includes Internet service provider Cox Communications, and operates a large number of local news TV and radio stations in the US.

Phone and TV tapping

With this feature, CMG claims to be able to “target your advertising to the EXACT people you’re looking for”, giving some specific examples of conversations that could be used: “The car lease ends in a month we need a plan”, “Do I see mold on the ceiling?” or “We need to get serious about planning for retirement”.

Customers should then be able to request a specific area of the service they want, available within a 10- or 20-mile radius. Once installed, the data is analyzed by AI to detect relevant conversations via smartphones, smart TVs, or other devices.

Once a target audience is created, CMG delivers relevant ads to those people via various streaming services, display ads, YouTube and Google searches.

“The result? An unparalleled understanding of consumer behavior that allows us to deliver personalized ads that make your audience think: Wow, they must be mind readers”, the company writes.

“Consent driven”

404 Media argues that this kind of interception can lead to legal problems. However, this is also something that CMG addresses, stating that it is perfectly legal to purchase and use their eavesdropping service.

“This is because consumers typically give their consent when they accept terms and conditions for software updates or app downloads”, the website says.

One marketer who contacted CMG and had the service explained to him says he himself disabled microphone access on his phone afterward.

– I immediately removed all my Amazon Echo devices and locked down microphone permissions on things like my phone as receiving confirmation they are doing things like this have confirmed my worst fears and I, for one, will not take part in it, the person told 404 Media.

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