Big Ear of Social Media

What we had long suspected was confirmed. Recently, Peter Henwei, Asterix company's cybersecurity specialist, remarked upon the possible tapping of conversations by mobile applications. Its purpose is collecting advertising data for targeting. Applications record and process users' conversations when they say trigger words, for example, "buy", "book", etc.

After this news, many people hurried to check the suspicions. So, the journalist of the Vice newspaper pronounced potential trigger words ("cheap shirts" and "study") for five days during his telephone conversations. According to him, the experiment was a success: announcements advertising educational institutions and inexpensive clothes began to appear in the news feed.

We also decided to check whether such a mechanism of tapping works in Russia.

Social networks, of course, do not report that telephone conversations are taken into account in targeting by interests. Officially, only data on subscriptions, questionnaire details, and user behavior on the network are used to focus advertising on the target audience.

We started our experiment by finding out which applications have access to the Microphone. You can find it out in Settings, in the Permissions section. Or look in Google Play, but not in its mobile version. For some reason, you can not see all this information there.

By the way, you can easily call off the permission to use the Microphone by switching the toggle switch. But who even remembers that it is on...

As a result, the following applications have access to the Microphone: Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, Youtube, VKontakte, Web Browser, Yandex. Your list may be different - here we listed the applications of the smartphone that participated in the test. The applications state that the permission is required for voice call functions. But is it only for this?

Then, within an hour, talking on a mobile phone we raised the topic of vacation: how to go to Turkey on vacation - on your own, buying the ticket and booking a hotel, or through a travel agency ("buy a ticket to Turkey", "book a hotel in Turkey").

Instagram was the first to respond to the trigger words. Aviasales advertisements of tickets to Turkey appeared in the stories almost immediately. If we did not expect such an effect, we would be quite surprised at advertising, reading our thoughts. Also, the advertisements of Cyprus, the direction competing with Turkey, started to pop up.

Remembering that Instagram belongs to Facebook Inc, and the social networks of the corporation exchange data among themselves, we began to study the Facebook news feed more attentively. And we were right - the advertisements of tickets by Momondo started to appear.

The suspicions expressed by our Western colleagues seemed to be confirmed. But we still doubted the possibility of targeting by telephone conversations. It seemed that our experiment was not sufficiently "clean": advertising hotels and flights, albeit for specific, but very popular destinations, is natural for holiday period. Even though such advertisements were shown to us only on the day of telephone conversations on the trigger topic, we did not take the results of our first experiment seriously.

Now we decided to complicate the task for social media and touched upon more specific topics during the phone conversations in the next two days:

  • the opening of a flower shop ("I want my flower shop", "I want to open a flower shop"),

  • the desire to learn how to sew ("learn how to sew", "sew a dress")

And this part of the experiment dispelled our doubts. Several advertisements on opening your flower shop and creating a collection of clothes appeared in Instagram stories.We noticed that social networks, among other things, evaluate the degree of our interest. For example, in the first part of the experiment, when the conversation with the trigger words lasted for just an hour, advertisements were demonstrated in stories, and Facebook news feed only once. But when we kept mentioning the trigger words for two days, the ad haunted us for about a week.

In both cases, VKontakte, Youtube, Yandex, Chrome, which have access to the Microphone of the mobile device, as well as Messenger, which, like Instagram, belongs to Facebook Inc., did not show themselves.

To sum up, let's say that Facebook and Instagram are the only ones that catch the hot topic of telephone conversations and broadcasting the relevant advertising. If your goods are classified as impulsive purchases, advertising in these social networks can be a very useful channel for promotion.