Is my car eavesdropping?
October 17, 2017 1:13 PM   Subscribe

On two separate occasions, I had conversations about items in the car. The next day, I saw ads for these items on Instagram. I am positive I didn't do a web search for these items. Is my car eavesdropping on me and talking to Instagram? Wondering if anyone else has experienced / heard about this. Possibly relevant information below.

  • This didn't happen all in one day, but about a month apart.
  • Each time, the item appeared as an ad in my Instagram feed the next day.
  • We have a Golf Alltrack. Strangely, this has only happened to me in the Alltrack and not a Jetta with the same year / entertainment system.
  • The items were a camping stove and a sleepnumber bed. I think it happened with a third item, but can't remember what it was.
  • I have an Android phone (Google branded).
  • I don't have a Facebook account, or the Facebook app on my phone (mentioning b/c Facebook owns Instagram), but I do have the Instagram app installed and I'm logged in to it.
  • As far as I have noticed, this has never happened with conversations outside of this particular car.
  • I'm pretty sure I wasn't connected to the car with the Android Auto app at the time.
posted by beyond_pink to Technology (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
One theory is confirmation bias - because you have already purchased XYZ, it's likely you will be interested in ABC.

I suggest a test - do no google searches, facebook posts, or purchases, but come up with a popular item that someone might be selling ads for that are completely outside of your life. Maybe ask a store clerk what the most popular item is, or something. Talk about that product in your car frequently, and see what happens.
posted by rebent at 1:20 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Probably not, but just because it could be relevant, what year was the car made? Does your car have any kind of On-Star type feature?

Mentioning an item one day and having a similar ad appear the next day two times in one month is well within the range of coincidence. I mean, think of all the things you talked about in a month when you didn't get a matching ad. Happened a hell of a lot more, I bet.

This is the whole plate-o-shrimp thing.
posted by bondcliff at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's more likely to be your phone than the car, no? I had a conversation with a coworker in my office about a store I have never been to and there was an ad for that same store the next time I signed into facebook. I know they claim not to be listening, but almost everyone I know has a story like this. The world we live in.
posted by something something at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2017 [28 favorites]

I have Facebook and Instagram on an Android phone with a special rooted app that shows when they access various device features. They absolutely do check your location hundreds of times a day, and I believe that if I were physically near someone and they searched for a product, they would figure it out. But they don't use the microphone (unless you choose to record a video). Of course it's theoretically possible that they are detecting my rooted phone and hiding nefarious behavior, or that they have some special deal with the car company, but I think it's unlikely.

Maybe you mentioned the product to a friend (not even a Facebook/Instagram friend, just someone you are frequently near) and they searched for it?
posted by miyabo at 1:24 PM on October 17, 2017 [12 favorites]

Bondcliff - the car is a 2017. I think it has a built-in GPS (that I've never used), but it also pairs with my phone so I can use Google Maps etc. on the screen. I don't think it was paired both times, maybe one of them.
posted by beyond_pink at 1:26 PM on October 17, 2017

Who else was in the car? If they later searched for or looked at the thing you'd been mentioning, while either in your proximity (geolocation) or from the same internet address block (same business or home) you might get served ads based on their traffic.
posted by mikeh at 1:29 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I picked up an Icelandic-style yogurt at Fresh Market and explained it to my mom. Did not buy it. The next day? Skyr and Siggi ads all over my feeds on multiple apps. Coincidence? I wasn't in the car (obviously), but did have my phone with me. I vote phone, too.
posted by jhope71 at 1:29 PM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Like something something mentioned, it could be Google Now on your phone listening for voice commands. You can disable it in Android Oreo by turning off "Ok Google" detection in the Google app.
posted by davcoo at 1:35 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I mentioned in a text (not in Facebook Messenger, just in a regular text) about a particular museum that I was thinking of visiting. I did not google it, I did not visit its website, and yet, minutes later, when I booted up Facebook in my phone, there was an ad for that museum and an exhibit at that museum, and then it followed me around in every site I visited through Facebook. That museum is about 140 miles away, so it wasn't proximity to it. My phone read my text and fed it to Facebook, the jerk. I have an iPhone. I'm guessing phone, too.
posted by clone boulevard at 2:16 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you want to go the Google Now route, check this URL to see everything the Google has on you, as far as voice. If you believe Google. I'd vote A) confirmation bias B) Friend search for it later, and Facebook picked up on that.
posted by zabuni at 2:38 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yup, it's most probably the phone. Last week I was listening to some jazz records which I bought on a whim. I never listen to jazz. The same day I got an ad on my phone for a jazz festival or concert in a nearby town. I don't have Facebook by the way, 99% of ads get blocked by pi-hole. Still ,that one ad came through. Never before or since did I get an ad for that concerthall.
posted by Kosmob0t at 2:45 PM on October 17, 2017

clone boulevard’s story is an interesting example of this phenomenon because an app on a non-jailbroken iPhone cannot access the contents of regular text messages. The apps are strictly segregated; Facebook doesn’t even have a way to ask for permission to read your texts from iMessage, let alone do so freely.

And as posted upthread, as far as anyone can tell, these apps do a lot to track you and your habits, but they do not leave the microphones on to eavesdrop on private spoken conversations. To do so would severely drain the battery, not to mention piss a lot of people off and possibly break laws (?)

So something else is going on, or it’s just eerie coincidence. Sometimes when this happens to me, I suspect I’m thinking about whatever it is because I’ve already subconsciously seen an ad for it, or that thing happens to be “in season” or in the middle of some other kind of marketing push. Then when the deluge comes, it seems like my mind is being read, but it’s actually the other way around. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening every time, but at least sometimes.
posted by Ryon at 3:41 PM on October 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

how would voice commands even work if the microphone isn't listening to your conversations all the time? I'm on an iPhone and I've had this happen to me. I don't have a sailboat nor do any of my friends, I never search for them, but a friend brought up sailing while we were at dinner and the next day I'm getting ads for sailing classes.
posted by AFABulous at 3:53 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

how would voice commands even work if the microphone isn't listening to your conversations all the time?
The microphone is always active, but your phone isn’t recording (and certainly isn’t sending) everything you say. It continuously compares what it hears to a reference model of the trigger phrase (“Hey Siri” or whatever). Only if it hears that does it start recording and sending. See for an explanation.
posted by kyten at 4:46 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is speculation on my part, but my best guess is that the person you were conversing with did do a search about the item or topic in question. You were then being served ads based on your social media connections with this person (plus maybe shared location, if you live or work together and show up as coming from the same IP address). I'm basing this on several occasions where I was served ads for something I knew my (cohabitating) girlfriend would search for, but had not myself searched for nor necessarily spoken with her about at length.

Listening to and interpreting a continuous stream of conversation in a way that results in meaningful ad content is expensive and not especially reliable. Known search history plus known relationship connection is a much stronger signal.
posted by 4rtemis at 5:13 PM on October 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

I am positive I didn't do a web search for these items

'I am positive' because you don't remember searching (noting that you can't remember whether this happened with a third item, so your memory is fallible, like everybody else's), or 'I am positive because I've checked my browser history on all my devices'?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:22 PM on October 17, 2017

Ryon, I do text using voice to text almost all the time. I wondered if maybe that was the reason. The person I was texting was in another state and isn't on Facebook at all, so even if she searched it, how would it relate that to me? It really was creepy.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:09 PM on October 17, 2017

The person you were texting may have had an Android phone with Facebook configured as the text messaging app. Then Facebook could read texts you sent them. I have no indication that they do this, but it's technically feasible.
posted by miyabo at 6:55 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Professional iOS developer here: if you use an iPhone no app can access your texts; no app can capture any input from the microphone while in the background without a large red bar that says "APPNAME is recording" appearing at the top of your screen. This isn't "oh well they promise they aren't but who knows", these are firm technical limitations in the OS itself.

I can't speak for android or your car, though.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:30 PM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

The most likely explanation is confirmation bias. Everyday you are bombarded with ads that aren't meaningful in any way but you don't notice. When 1:100,000 of those ads links to something you talked about in the last couple of days you make the connection without discounting the 99,999 other times you were presented for ads for foo without having had a conversation about foo.

Also things will seep into conversation via popular media (IE: character on popular show talks about weird topic FOO; Foo becomes common search term; person you are talking to mentions FOO because it was on their mind because of the media; Advertisers target ads about FOO and you see the ad only semi coincidentally). This happens all the time and is really noticeable once you are aware of it. Suddenly every is talking about rainbow scarves or something and a little tracing it back reveals Oprah or somebody mentioned them on their show.
posted by Mitheral at 8:50 PM on October 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

Android: basically any app can do anything at any time as long as they have the right permissions, and Facebook asks for almost all the permissions including using the microphone and reading your texts. I don't THINK they actively use it but it's very hard to be certain.
posted by miyabo at 9:41 PM on October 17, 2017

I also suspect it's the phone, and I think weird crossovers can happen regardless of what we're told can or cannot be accessed. For instance, Facebook suggested a friend to me: my therapist. She was in my email and my phone, but we certainly weren't FB friends, and nor did we share any. A friend of mine had something very similarar happen with a different therapist she had only been in context with over text.
posted by mermaidcafe at 7:38 AM on October 18, 2017

Facebook asks to import address books. Even if you didn't do this your therapist might have.
posted by Mitheral at 9:31 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have a VW, but when I've been in cars (A Ford and a Mazda) where I am paired with the stereo system the microphone is no longer always "on" - you can't use "Hey Siri". The car typically needs to mute stuff coming out of the speakers when listening so it requires taking an action to turn the mic on.

These were in cars without CarPlay so can't speak to that condition.
posted by homesickness at 1:10 PM on October 18, 2017

Facebook asks to import address books. Even if you didn't do this your therapist might have.

Alternatively, if the therapist is on Android and uses Facebook Messenger as their SMS handler app of choice, now Facebook knows that the two phone numbers (and thus people) are connected.
posted by Itaxpica at 1:36 PM on October 18, 2017

To respond to some suggestions here - I wasn't texting anyone, I was having an IRL conversation, and I do not have the Facebook app (or an active Facebook account).

Those of you who suggested confirmation bias are probably right, and I like the idea of experimenting with mentioning brands in/out of the car. I tried mentioning three related brands of one product, one just around my phone outside of the car, one in the car with my phone paired, and one in the car with bluetooth off. Of course, NONE of them came up as Instagram ads...yet.
posted by beyond_pink at 11:35 AM on October 20, 2017

I found this Wired article pretty interesting. It talks about how much processing power and data transmission would have to be involved in an app eavesdropping on people.
posted by soelo at 11:35 AM on November 10, 2017

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