New report claims your phone, TV, and smart speaker are spying on you. But is it real?

A sensational story ricocheted around the web last week, alleging that online advertisers are capable of listening in on your casual conversations as you talk within earshot of smart devices. Could it possibly be true?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
phone in the dark
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Last week a 404 Media piece went viral, thanks to an alarming series of allegations about the apparent ability of smart devices to listen in on our conversations.

Marketing Company Claims That It Actually Is Listening to Your Phone and Smart Speakers to Target Ads

A marketing team within media giant Cox Media Group (CMG) claims it has the capability to listen to ambient conversations of consumers through embedded microphones in smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices to gather data and use it to target ads, according to a review of CMG marketing materials by 404 Media and details from a pitch given to an outside marketing professional.


The news signals that what a huge swath of the public has believed for years—that smartphones are listening to people in order to deliver ads—may finally be a reality in certain situations.

Shocking, right? On the surface, this is a story about online privacy and the surveillance state. But I wasted the better part of two days following this story down various rabbit holes, and I can confirm that the underlying facts simply don't add up.

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After reading this sensational story, I have some questions: Did they really say that? Did they really do that? Is this kind of spying even possible? If this kind of spying is really possible, why isn't everyone doing this?

Let's take it from the top.

Did they really say that?

Yes, they did. Two blog posts on the Cox Global Media Local Solutions website made some startling claims. The company has pulled those pages from the web, but I was able to save cached copies for posterity. 


This is a cached copy of one of the pages boasting of "Active Listening" by CMG Local Solutions.

Here are a few snippets from those two posts:

Our technology is on the cutting edge of voice data processing. We can identify buyers based on casual conversations in real time. It may seem like black magic, but it's not-it's AI. The growing ability to access microphone data on devices like smartphones and tablets enables our technology partner to aggregate and analyze voice data during pre-purchase conversations.


By incorporating and analyzing customer data gleaned from conversations happening around smart devices, we can pinpoint where and when customers are most likely to engage with ads. When you have this information in reach, you have the power to deploy targeted campaigns at opportune moments on the platforms where your audience spends their time. The results? Maximized visibility and impact.


AI lets us know when and what to tune into. Our technology detects relevant conversations via smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices.

Sounds like pretty sophisticated technology, right? That post was authored by CMG Global Solutions' Vice President of Digital Strategy, Justin Wenokur, and has a publication date of November 28, 2023.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Justin does SEO and local ads for CMG's network of radio stations. Justin's post appeared on the CGM Local Solutions blog alongside posts with titles like "Digital Marketing for Plumbers Turns Prospects into Profits" and "Boost cosmetology school enrollments" and "Tractor marketing strategies."

My conclusion: Justin got the keys to the blog and started publishing stuff without any oversight from management, which was busy trying to deal with the 50 radio stations and 10 local TV stations that bring in 96% of their revenue every year in a market that is collapsing at an alarming rate. Maybe Justin heard a story from his company's unnamed "technology partner" and extrapolated wildly from it. Or maybe he just made up a bunch of stuff to help his sales reps develop more interesting pitches.

Did they really do that?

I have a problem with the way 404 Media wrote this story up. They didn't offer a shred of evidence that any violations of privacy actually happened. They quoted a couple of thoroughly incredible blog posts and they interviewed some hapless sucker who sat through a fantastical pitch from his CMG Local Solutions rep. And that's it.

There's no evidence that any of this technological tomfoolery ever happened. Instead, we have a bunch of third-rate sales reps who put together a pitch filled with unbelievable details.

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CMG Local Solutions sent a statement to Ars Technica in the wake of this mess confirming that they 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." Days after publishing the original story, 404 Media updated it with comments from the company, which said they "regret any confusion."

They deserved shaming, but these posts didn't deserve to be taken seriously.

Is this kind of spying even possible?

Smart devices are filled with hardware whose entire job is to listen for your commands and turn them into actions. Your smartphone has a microphone, of course. Your Amazon Echo and Google Next smart speakers contain microphones that are always listening for the magic "wake words." Your smart TV probably has a microphone so it can respond to voice commands.

A decade or more ago, the CIA tried to build an app to hack Samsung smart TVs so they could listen in to random conversations by people they were targeting. It turned out to be really hard to do that, and they're actual spies! As my colleagues at CNET reported when the news first emerged, this kind of exploit had to be implanted by a literal evil maid, using a physical USB connection, and Samsung quickly blocked the exploit with firmware updates.

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It's even more difficult to imagine that Apple or Google would allow anyone to eavesdrop on conversations using your smartphone. There are layers of permissions that have to be enabled before that can happen.

The same is true with smart speakers, which are designed to listen for specific "wake words," and smart TVs, which typically don't start listening until you push a button on the remote control. 

Is it technically possible? Sure. Is there any chance this kind of spying happened without being noticed by the world's most valuable public companies? Nope.

If this kind of spying is really possible, why isn't everyone doing this?

And there's the real $64 billion question.

Don't be fooled by the Cox name. Cox Media Group was created when Cox Enterprises spun off its local radio, TV, and newspaper businesses into a company that it then sold to a private equity management firm called Apollo Media. CMG is a minor player in the media game, and its Local Solutions group is an SEO shop that sells ads and video pre-rolls to local businesses.

If it were really possible to light up the microphones in all your smart devices and send your random conversations off to anonymous marketers, do you really think that a third-tier local media outlet would be leading the charge?

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That's a rhetorical question, obviously. The genuinely large companies in charge of those devices (Google, Apple, Amazon) are constrained by regulatory agencies in the US and Europe. Even a whiff of the privacy violations described in these phantasmagorical pitches would be enough to earn multi-billion-Euro fines for everyone involved.

It's theoretically possible for online marketers to eavesdrop on you, but there are significant technological hurdles to overcome before they can do that, and there's a vanishingly small chance they would be able to pull something like this off without getting caught and punished. 

The bottom line? It didn't happen. 404 Media knew it didn't happen, but they collected the hundreds of millions of clicks associated with this BS story anyway.

Maybe next time you see a story from 404 Media, you should tell them exactly what you think. In fact, say it out loud. And don't worry, they won't be able to hear you from a phone, TV, or speaker.

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