Imagine you are chatting with a friend over a cup of coffee. You happen upon the topic of “unheard of” places you would like to vacation. One of you mentions the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. It was just an off-the-cuff remark–you had never searched for it through Google or ever written about it. Surprise! Surprise! The very next day, your social media feeds have articles about the place and you even see an advertisement about cheap flight tickets to Ireland. Was your phone listening in on your conversation?
Does NLP Make this Possible?
NLP or Natural Language Processing is a term that is used to cover a combination of technologies that help us to interact with machines using normal conversation. This means that machines are programmed to understand different languages and even improve the more they use the language. In other words, NLP combines language, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence into everyday interactions.
We often don’t give a second thought when we say “Hey Siri” or “Ok Google.” Even before this, we had voice-enabled searches running in Google. NLP is what is being used to extract valuable insights from terabytes of unstructured data like social media posts, audio files and video content to create complex algorithms from user behavior.
Many apps do ask permission to access your phone microphone among other things. It becomes clear then that your conversations and audio around you–like the T.V. programs you are watching–can be listened to.
So, How is this Information Used?
The question, though, is whether it makes sense for such huge amounts of data to be captured. The more viable option is to have triggers that can decide on what data should be tapped into. This is the data that will make sense for smarter targeted advertisements.
Content is King and delivering it to exactly the right audience means a higher conversion rate and increased revenue. These intelligent algorithms are now a given and are finding answers in unlikely places. Dr. Peter Henway, a senior cybersecurity consultant, says that voice-automated intelligent devices need trigger keywords like “Ok, Google” to activate. However, this also means that they need to be constantly listening for these words. They are collecting much more data about us, even when our phones appear to be switched off.
Do We Need to Be Worried?
We have surrounded ourselves with technology–microphones on phones, computers, virtual assistants, and smart devices. Did you know that 75% of the most visited websites in the cyber universe use web tracking tools? We do need to accept that we have thoroughly bugged our lives, and this problem is not going anywhere. But do we need to be scared or feel creeped out that someone or something knows us this well?
Technology does exist that can sweep millions of conversations for trigger phrases. Google is open about it while Facebook (who also owns Whatsapp and Instagram) denies listening in on private conversations. But it is not pure coincidence that we are being served with ads that are extremely specific. The practice is legal, though the Data Protection Act requires that consumer permission is obtained. However, we normally ignore this when we barely glance at and agree to the terms provided by these apps. The truth of the matter is that companies already have extremely large amounts of customer data that can be used to discover trends and predict behavior in order to personalize recommendations. There are many other ways to reach a target audience that do not require audio information.
At this point, we really do not need to live in fear, since the ones collecting this data will not necessarily share the information directly with any advertiser. What they could do is retain the exclusivity while providing the ability to advertisers to better target their audience. So, it is true our phones are being used to listen in to our conversations, but unless you are involved with highly confidential information, we don’t need to go off the grid… yet.