Technician Explains Data Privacy in Viral Twitter Thread

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Robert G. Reeve took to Twitter on Tuesday to share that he had received an advertisement for a brand of toothpaste his mother uses. Coincidence? Definitely not.

Reeve, a content strategist at Capital One, had just returned from a week-long stay with her. But before people could use this as another example of phones eavesdropping on conversations, Reeve set up a now-viral Twitter thread explaining how digital ads actually work.

“I just got back from a week with my mom and now I’m getting ads for her brand of toothpaste, the brand I’ve been putting in my mouth for a week,” he tweeted. “We’ve never talked about this brand or Google or anything like that. As a privacy technician, let me explain why this is happening.”

Just returned from a week with my mom and now I’m getting ads for her brand of toothpaste, the brand I’ve been putting in my mouth for a week. We have never talked about this brand or searched on Google or anything like that.

As a privacy tech worker, let me explain why this is happening. ??

– Robert G. Reeve (@RobertGReeve) May 25, 2021

He explained that the idea of ​​social media apps listening to private conversations is a “conspiracy theory.” The point is, he says, social media apps, Internet browsers, and cellular devices don’t have to listen, because the data freely transmitted to them minute-by-minute is “much cheaper and much more powerful.” .

“People think our phones are listening because it’s a simple explanation of a complex reality,” Reeve said. News week.

In his thread, Reeve explained that purchases, browser history, etc., are all data bought and sold by aggregators. And because people tend to use the same email and phone number for their social media accounts as they do for online retailers, rewards programs, etc., aggregators can match their purchases. an individual to their social accounts to create a more holistic profile of the individual. However, it gets a lot more complex, and possibly a lot scarier, than that.

“If my phone is regularly in the same GPS location as another phone, they take note of it,” he said. “They’re starting to rebuild the network of people I’m in regular contact with. Advertisers can match my interests, browsing history, and shopping history with those around me. It starts showing ME different advertisements based on it. people AROUND me. “

Advertisers can match my interests and browsing and shopping history with those around me. He starts showing ME different advertisements based on the people AROUND me.

Family. Friends. Coworkers.

– Robert G. Reeve (@RobertGReeve) May 25, 2021

He explained that even if this aggregation can sometimes lead an individual to receive an advertisement that he does not want, the advertisement still belongs to a person around him. This leads to a conversation about a product, which can still generate a conversion.

“He never needed to listen to me for that,” Reeve said. “It’s just a matter of comparing aggregated metadata.”

“So. They know about my mom’s toothpaste. They know I was at my mom’s. They know my Twitter. Now I’m getting ads on Twitter for mom’s toothpaste. Your data isn’t just about you. “It’s about how they can be used against every person you know, and people you don’t know. To shape behavior subconsciously,” he continued.

So. They know about my mom’s toothpaste. They know I was at my mother’s house. They know my Twitter. Now I’m getting ads on Twitter for mom’s toothpaste.

Your data is not just about you. It’s about how it can be used against everyone you know and people you don’t know. To shape behavior unconsciously.

– Robert G. Reeve (@RobertGReeve) May 25, 2021

He then encouraged his subscribers to block ads from every app.

People have had mixed reactions to the breakdown provided by Reeve. Some people thought the thread was hinged and worth sharing.

“Finally! A great discussion thread about why your phone isn’t listening to you, but sometimes looks like it does,” said author and journalist Jamie Bartlett.

Finally! A great thread on why your phone isn’t listening to you, but sometimes looks like it does. https://t.co/VVZMUcTZsL

– Jamie Bartlett (@JamieJBartlett) May 26, 2021

Another Twitter user said, “Social media is free for users because we are not their customers, we are the product.”

Others, however, still had doubts.

“I don’t think it’s always a coincidence,” replied one user. “I mentioned a certain product out loud one day and received advertisements for that product the next day. Even if it’s just the precision of an algorithm, it’s still weird.”

Someone commented, “You see hundreds, if not thousands of ads a day and don’t think about it. [the] the right people at the right time are what the ad technology industry is all about. “

You see hundreds, if not thousands of ads a day and think nothing about it. You happen to notice which ones seem to be coincidence, because our brains are designed for pattern recognition. Reaching the right people at the right time is the raison d’être of the ad technology industry.

– Joshua Belhumeur (@goodhumeurman) May 26, 2021

Another skeptical tweeter said, “Okay, if the phones aren’t listening, explain this one to me: I never talk about family / mental health issues anywhere online. One day I do. had a pretty long conversation with my sister about Soon after, EVERY ad on insta [sic] was about remote therapy. “

But as Reeve explained on Twitter, social apps don’t need to spy on users through a microphone. Every day, users willingly agree to the privacy policies that enable apps, websites, etc. to track and sell a user’s personal information to other companies for the sole purpose of creating targeted advertisements. Unfortunately, people don’t often read these policies.

“Two Carnegie Mellon researchers estimated in 2012 that if you read every privacy policy you agree to in a year, it would take 76 days,” Reeve said. News week. “Nine years later, I’m sure that number has increased. Who has time for this? It’s my career and not me.”

Privacy and data aggregation are complex issues that involve many moving parts. So, don’t be shocked to come across a toothpaste ad after reading this article. For more detailed information, read the full thread.

Updated 05/27/2012, 5:30 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional commentary from Reeve.

Chesnot / Contributor / Getty

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