can you hear me now?

This is the culmination of a few weeks of testing a couple of different hypotheses regarding the use of cellphones as surveillance:

Test One

Hypothesis: Purchasing specific products using the cellphone (rather than a computer) will lead to niche advertisements within ads and apps.

Course of Action: Purchase an item(s) from an online retailer using the phone.

Predicted Result: Targeted advertisements from either the aforementioned retailer and/or for similar items.

Test Two

Hypothesis: Speaking about specific products/services around the cellphone will lead to niche advertisements within ads and apps.

Course of Action: Mention specific items/events every few hours around the phone.

Predicted Result: Targeted advertisements for the item and/or similar items.

Caveat: Though I have an account on most social media platforms, I really don’t use social media in any meaningful or constant way. Therefore, the data used will be from a small number of places (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter).


Test One: Purchases

Very coincidentally, just before this project, I had a safe, socially distant outing I was attending where I had to purchase some clothes and accessories: a goth-themed picnic.

In this column you have the basic goth related advertisements on different platforms.

In these two columns you have two specific goth related items which were advertised on different platforms.

Result

As expected, due to purchases made on the phone, similar and related items/products began to be advertised on my different platform feeds. Pinpointing the ads targeted at me from those purchases proved fairly easy. Many advertisements began popping up for gothic/witchy/occult-like things over the next few weeks.

(I’ll be honest, it was hard not to buy some stuff since the goth/grunge/punk/dark academia aesthetic is very much my style…)


Test Two: Verbal Cues

I tried talking about a wide variety of subjects including: food, mental health and self-care, body modifications (tattoos and hair dying), and social subjects (voting, the BLM movement, etc.).

Food

I think the most interesting thing about the food section is the 3 ads for Misfits Market on 3 different platforms, especially because I never mentioned Misfits Market specifically since I use Imperfect Foods (a rival of Misfits Market).

Other than those, my best friend and I are constantly talking about our love of bubble tea and macrons (and then going to get some) so it’s not a surprise seeing ads for those in there.

Mental Health & Self-Care

Another thing constantly talked about by me. Whether it’s my own or advocating for others mental health and self care; especially in 2020. So I’m not remotely surprised seeing so many mental health/self-care ads in my social media.

Body Modifications

I love and am always talking about my desperate need (yes, need) for another tattoo and/or hair color. Mostly the tattoos… Regardless, the ads for both these products make sense for my feeds.

Social Subjects

None of these particularly surprise me. I’m queer; I’m very vocal about voting (as are many, many other people); I support BLM. I talk at length about all three subjects, especially recently. So all the ads for the three fit with how I’ve been talking around the phone.

Result

While I obviously didn’t only talk about the above four subjects for a few weeks, I think the fact that there were so many ads, across so many platforms that were either exactly the same or about similar things is telling about the state of audio “surveillance” employed by cellphones.


Conclusion

Listen, it’s no secret that cellphones are a tool to “surveil” each owner. People have long know that computer and phone cameras watch us and smart phones listen to us and track our data. There are various reasons for it, from data harvesting for easier us by the user or the company harvesting the data to Siri being constantly on so she can hear when you call for her and more.

I will throw potential data skewers for each test:

  • Test One may have been influenced by Test Two (sort of). Since it is spooky season, the mention of Halloween has come up a lot in the past few weeks around/from me. So, with the outcome of Test Two, there is the chance that in addition to the goth picnic purchases, there were verbal cues leading to more Halloween-like items being advertised. Still, I hold that due to the sheer volume of goth advertisements, it was mainly due to the initial purchases.
  • Test Two may have been influenced by my choices in: who I follow, what posts I like, what I’ve searched in the past, etc. I do follow some tattoo shops and plenty of queer influencers. My friends might also influence what is advertised to me; for example, in one of the macron ads, one of my friends had previously liked it.

To those points I will say there was enough overlap between the platforms and advertisements I looked at and with my general limited use of social media, I think there is absolutely evidence for cellphones being used as a form of surveillance in multiple ways. In then end, it’s up to the user to determine whether they are comfortable with and how much information they are willing to give out on or around phones, and really any smart technology. This isn’t a conspiracy…or is it?!

No. No it’s not.

Can you hear that?