Listen Carefully

The future is coming—and it's controlled by the eavesdroppers


‘Pass me the Weego,” I say to my wife, Heather, as I survey the glistening swamp beneath our sink. It looks like our garbage disposal is leaking but I need a flashlight, and the Weego—a jump-starter battery gadget with a built-in flashlight—is sitting nearby on the counter. I’ve barely extricated myself from the cabinetry when Heather says, “OK, this is scary,” and hands me her phone. Her Facebook feed is showing an ad for the Weego. “I’ve never searched for a Weego, emailed about a Weego, or written the word ‘Weego,’ ” she says. “But you just said it out loud and now it’s in my Facebook feed.” I immediately grab a hammer and smash her eavesdropping phone into a dusty pile of silicon and Gorilla Glass. OK, no I don’t. It’s an iPhone 8 Plus. I don’t care if the screen is permanently covered with a layer of cholera. Have you seen Portrait Mode? It’s stunning.

Everybody has stories like this. You’re talking about flannel pajamas or Wade Boggs or camel farts, and suddenly your phone is proffering ads for L.L. Bean, mustache trimmers and Gas-X Dromedary, the only anti-flatulence tablet specifically formulated for single-humped, even-toed ungulates. “Huh,” you say, “That’s an awfully specific coincidence.” All the major tech companies deny that they’re spying on you, and yet there seems to be plenty of evidence that this happens all the time. The official line from Google/Facebook/Apple is something like, “Sure, we could listen to you. But we don’t. And if any of our app developers try those shenanigans, we’ll nip it in the bud … just as soon as we find out.” Yeah, I’m sure they’ve got their top people on the case—the same ones who didn’t think it was weird when American political ads were paid for in rubles. 

But don’t worry: It’s not just the tech companies who are up in your business. It’s your cable company, too. A few weeks ago I searched for an air compressor on my home laptop, and shortly thereafter my work laptop—no social media, totally separate email—began displaying Google ads for air compressors. My desire for an air compressor somehow leapt from machine to machine, browser to browser. I have a friend who writes about tech, and I asked him how this happened. “I suspect it’s your internet service provider,” he said. “They can probably see that the two IP addresses are in the same house, so they assume it’s the same person with both computers and push ads between them.” Remember that the next time you use your personal laptop to search job listings. Your work computer is in the corner like, “What? Just minding my own business over here getting ready to show you some ads for COBRA plans, Benedict Arnold.”

I only recently learned that Amazon’s Alexa records every question you ask her, so I went into the app to find out what she’d heard. There I discovered that Amazon has transcripts and recordings not only of every question I’d asked, but plenty that I hadn’t. She’s only supposed to activate upon hearing “Alexa,” but it turns out that many other phrases will trigger a recording. For instance, I heard myself explaining the concept of core charges at auto parts stores, saying, “You pay a little extra and bring the old part back to them.” Basically, she’ll start recording for any name other than Fred, and thus you definitely don’t want to do anything illegal within earshot of your Echo Dot. “I’m extra excited that a Mexican cartel accepts AmEx for the fake Rolexes that Biloxi expects,” would be a bad thing to say in front of Alexa.

But at least I understand Alexa spying on me—a voice-activated assistant kind of has to listen. Roomba, though? How could you? I told Heather’s Weego story to a friend in the security business, who informed me that illicit mic access was just one facet of the constant data harvest that is your life. “Roombas collect data now,” he said. “They map the inside of your house, so, say, furniture companies could show you ads for furniture that would fit. And there are billboards that scan the cars driving past for phones and then sell ads in real time based on who they see.” Both of these assertions seemed a little bit tinfoil-hat, so I checked them out. And yes, Roombas collect data, although iRobot says it doesn’t sell it and only shares it if you want them to. And Clear Channel really does have a program called Radar that uses billboards to track you. Basically, the only guy who isn’t being monitored by tech companies is your friend Xander who lives in a yurt and sells alpaca drug-rugs by the side of the road in Northampton.

I ought to write a letter to Apple and Google, Amazon and Facebook, Comcast and Verizon, and tell them exactly what I think about their invasions of privacy. But I have a feeling they already know. ◆


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