Marketing giant ‘admits it listens to your conversations to sell targeted ads’

Leading U.S. marketing company Cox Media Group (CMG) has reportedly admitted to monitoring conversations for targeted advertising.

Working with renowned brands like CBS, Fox News and ESPN, CMG has allegedly been promoting its ability to eavesdrop on consumers through microphones in smartphones, TVs and smart speakers.

The agency has coined this capability “Active Listening” and has been actively pitching this service to advertisers, showcasing the feature on its website, reports 404.

Dig deeper: 3 privacy-centric solutions for marketing compliance

Pitching the product. A CMG rep was reportedly spotted on LinkedIn promoting this service, encouraging interested parties to get in touch so that they could provide more information on prices.

Early response. Industry experts are already speculating about potential repercussions. On Twitter/X, SEO consultant Glenn Gabe wrote: “This will not end well.”

Google Ads expert Steve Huskey added on Twitter/X: “Textbook definition of invasion of privacy.”

Why we care. Consumers have been suspicious of this happening since voice-activated devices and apps were first introduced. However, it hasn’t stopped most people (98% of U.S. smart device users, according to one study) from using them. That said, Apple and Google have both ended the practice of listening to recordings made by these devices. Likely because it is more than a little bit creepy.

When Siri, Alexa, et al., hit the marketplace neither consumers nor governments were as concerned about individual privacy rights. CMG’s actions are drawing attention to these practices at a time when citizens and regulators feel very differently. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where this doesn’t become a PR disaster.

Company response. A CMG spokesperson told MarTech: 

  • “CMG Local Solutions markets a wide range of advertising tools. Like other advertising companies, some of those tools include third-party vendor products powered by data sets sourced from users by various social media and other applications then packaged and resold to data servicers.”
  • “Advertising data based on voice and other data is collected by these platforms and devices under the terms and conditions provided by those apps and accepted by their users, and can then be sold to third-party companies and converted into anonymized information for advertisers.”
  • “This anonymized data then is resold by numerous advertising companies. 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. … We regret any confusion and we are committed to ensuring our marketing is clear and transparent.”

For its part, a Google spokesperson told MarTech that Android has been preventing apps from collecting audio when they’re not being actively used for years. They also pointed out that “whenever an app activates a device’s microphone, there is a prominent icon displayed in the status bar.”

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