Affiliate Disclosure
If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Read our ethics policy.

One advertiser may be able to listen in on you — if you have an older Android device

Cox Enterprises

Worried that your smart phone is listening to you? A digital marketing group associated with one of the US's biggest cable companies claims to be doing exactly that.

Many of us have had the experience of seeing an ad pop up for a product or service we've only casually mentioned in passing by talking to someone in the room. Ad and tech executives have denied that they spy on consumers, and most experts agree that the legal data collection methods already employed by those businesses help them create uncannily detailed profiles about your personal spending habits, interests, and hobbies.

But that hasn't shaken the sense many of us have that our devices are listening to us — eavesdropping on our conversations, and surreptitiously feeding advertisers the information.

So what if it were true?

That's apparently the premise behind "Active Listening," a digital marketing effort spearheaded by Cox Media Group. Cox Media operates television and radio stations, a co-venture of private equity firm Apollo Global Management and the multibillion-dollar Cox Enterprises media empire.

Cox Media Group's Local Solutions Group provides a number of digital marketing services for its clients including fairly run-of-the-mill targeted digital advertising, video ads, SEO, and analytics.

"Active Listening" sports the ominously Orwellian tagline, "It's True. Your Devices Are Listening to You."

"With Active Listening, CMG can now use voice data to target your advertising to the EXACT people you are looking for," reads a web page on the company's site, which has since been removed from public view but is still viewable on Web archives.

CMG's Web page for Active Listening says,
CMG's Web page for Active Listening says, "It's True. Your Devices Are Listening to You."

Marketing materials from Cox obtained by 404 Media indicate that Cox's tech uses artificial intelligence to detect relevant conversations overheard by smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices. The service in turn purports to deliver advertising to those customers using streaming video and audio, display advertisements, Web search results on services including Google, Bing, and YouTube.

In the information obtained by 404 Media, CMG failed to offer details of how the service works on a technical level, such as what APIs it might be using to do this, or how it would circumvent safety restrictions employed by Apple and others to prevent it from doing so.

But the company does claim that it's legal, mainly because most people blithely ignore and accept the lengthy legalese terms and conditions specified when they update apps on their devices.

Not on Apple's watch — or iPhone

While it's conceivable that a smart TV or smart speaker might be surreptitiously saddled with such surveillance tech, Apple makes it pretty clear to users when the microphones on their devices are active by popping up an indicator depending on the device to show the mic is active. Short of Pegasus-level spyware usually used to target terrorists, criminals, and enemies of the state, all-Apple users don't have much to worry about, at least when it comes to CMG spying on them.

Apple's protections, of course, do not include the aforementioned smart televisions, Alexa devices, or the like.

For what it's worth, CMG's taken down any mention of Active Listening on their website. With the wagons circling while they ride out this PR storm, we're not optimistic we'll be getting any clarification any time soon.

Updated December 18, 12:07 PM ET

Google reached out to us with a statement about the Active Listening, and protections in modern devices that support September 2020's Android 11 or newer.

"For years, Android has prevented apps from collecting audio when they're not being actively used, and whenever an app activates a device's microphone, there is a prominent icon displayed in the status bar."

Apple has required microphone permission requests by apps that want to use it since iOS 7 was released in 2013. Technically, unupdated iOS devices could still be monitored in such a fashion. Only the original iPad, original iPhone, and iPhone 3G can't be updated to iOS 7.