CMG Claims It Is Using Device Microphones to Target Ads

Joseph Cox, 404 Media:

A marketing team within media giant Cox Media Group (CMG) claims it has the capability to listen to ambient conversations of consumers through embedded microphones in smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices to gather data and use it to target ads, according to a review of CMG marketing materials by 404 Media and details from a pitch given to an outside marketing professional. Called “Active Listening,” CMG claims the capability can identify potential customers “based on casual conversations in real time.”

Pretty quick turnaround in the “egg on my face” department, I have to say, but it is great that the privacy reporter named Cox is investigating the privacy nihilists named Cox.

It is not immediately clear if the capability CMG is advertising and claims works is being used on devices in the market today, but the company notes it is “a marketing technique fit for the future. Available today.” 404 Media also found a representative of the company on LinkedIn explicitly asking interested parties to contact them about the product. One marketing professional pitched by CMG on the tech said a CMG representative explained the prices of the service to them.

It seems Cox Media Group has been selling this product for a couple of months with some of those pitched claiming CMG representatives said they get voice data from Apple and Google. That seems implausible, to say the least, and not just from Apple — why would Google be okay with listening in on users for targeted advertising purposes, but not use it for its own ads? It would be shocking if the substance of CMG’s pitch turns out to be true. Given that CMG is the only one making these claims and is not speaking about it at all beyond its marketing, it seems wise to approach this with overwhelming skepticism.

Still, you are thinking it and I am thinking it: what if this is really as described? It reads like a parody; the top of CMG’s marketing page says “It’s True. Your Devices Are Listening to You”, which must feel icky even to the most data-hungry marketer. It gets worse as you scroll down the page. One section asks rhetorically “is this legal?”, which is not generally the kind of question someone ought to be thinking as they consider your product. But it answers itself in the affirmative, insisting “consumers usually give consent when accepting terms and conditions” — a rationale which may be technically correct but is ethically indefensible.

I reached out to CMG with a few questions of my own and I will post an update in the unlikely event a representative replies.

Update: I received a vague statement from CMG which did not answer anything I asked. The company says “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” and it is “committed to ensuring our marketing is clear and transparent”.

Update: MindSift, a marketing firm with a suspiciously light website, also bragged about being able to target ads based on things people are saying in the real world. I am not convinced anybody is actually doing this. It feels to me like marketing bullshit which ad tech providers pretend to have; they can get away with it because many people already believe this is happening, and there is no way to prove it is not. Still, these businesses clearly believe marketers want to hear they can target advertising based on conversations in people’s homes. That does not say good things about the advertising and marketing industry.