Just as an eagle watches its prey, for-profit companies are tracking our every move online: which sites we visit, what we purchase, who we interact with. By now you’re probably used to shopping for something online, then seeing ads for that very product. For example, this week I bought a crystal bowl, and this banner ad popped up a few hours later. Somewhat expected, since I did type "Baccarat Arabesque bowl" into Google.
But there’s a different kind of targeted marketing now, which absolutely crosses the line. Its implications should make all of us terribly concerned. Yet it’s rarely a headline.
If I told you your phone is listening to you, I'd sound like a paranoid, crazy person. But your phone is listening to you. Even when it’s tucked away in your pocket or purse, its screen misleadingly black. That microphone is still on, scanning your every word.
Here’s an example. The other day my mother and I were out shopping (my phone idle in my purse), and she introduced me to a brand I’d never heard of: Farm Rio. We discussed the brand, mentioning its name several times. I never once typed “Farm Rio” into a search or interacted with the brand online. But a few days later, a sponsored Farm Rio ad appeared in my Instagram feed.
I was taken aback, but not surprised. It’s happened before: previously unfamiliar clothing brands, hotels, and locations suddenly showing up in advertisements after I spoke about them. I’ve also experienced this with Facebook: a person I haven’t mentioned or seen in at least a decade comes up in conversation with an old friend as we reminisce. Suddenly, that person is a suggested friend on Facebook.
After several of these incidents, I eagerly looked up how to disable this concerning feature.
If you want to do so on a iPhone: go to Settings, then Privacy, then Microphone, and there you’ll see a list of which apps have permission to use your microphone.
Great, I thought, and toggled the Instagram and Facebook switches to “off”.
Here’s the problem: you can’t record stories, reels, or live videos in these apps without microphone access. So for any avid Instagram user, removing microphone access renders the app fairly useless.
These sophisticated app developers know what they’re doing; if they wanted to, they could easily separate microphone uses, enabling you to turn off listening for targeting marketing, while still enabling you to record video. But they don’t. And so, with a hesitant sigh of defeat, I toggled Instagram’s microphone permission once again, and turned it back on.
How did we become so powerless in this regard? These social media giants are for-profit companies, and it's in their best financial interest to not listen to these privacy concerns, since they profit so heavily from these targeted ads. They're banking on our being too addicted to social media to really care.
Let’s change that.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have become virtual town squares, where billions of people share news and points of view, where worldwide movements begin, where the leader of the free world can be silenced. The power of these platforms is so great, the implications of decisions so far-reaching, that in my opinion, these social networks should no longer be controlled by a handful of American CEOs.
The pandemic opened the floodgates on social media censorship. It began as a noble effort to curb the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, but balancing public health with healthy scientific debate quickly became a difficult line to walk. Should Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley elites be the decision makers on content we're able to see? In this case, it literally can mean life or death.
The Republican Attorney General from Ohio recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times calling for Google to be treated as a public utility. Why should data-hungry social networks be held to a different standard? Sure, a litany of details would need to be ironed out, particularly since these platforms are used worldwide, not just in the U.S. So perhaps an international governing body, with checks and balances put into place, should have authority over these powerful platforms instead.
We’re living through a technological revolution. Navigating a society that’s gone virtual is completely uncharted territory. So we, the people, should spend a little less time mindlessly scrolling, and a little more time actively questioning the status quo. Should the ability to watch our online behavior, listen to our conversations, and censor our opinions really be given to a handful of power-hungry CEOs? As for the alternative...we might not like our political leaders, but at least, in most cases, we did elect them.