'Your Social Media Apps are Not Listening to You': Tech Worker Explains Data Privacy in Viral Twitter Thread

Robert G. Reeve took to Twitter on Tuesday to share that he'd been served an ad for a brand of toothpaste his mother uses. Coincidence? Definitely not.

Reeve, a content strategist at Capital One, had just returned from a weeklong stay at her home. But before people could use this as yet another example of phones listening in on conversations, Reeve put together a now-viral Twitter thread explaining how digital ads really work.

"I'm back from a week at my mom's house and now I'm getting ads for her toothpaste brand, the brand I've been putting in my mouth for a week," he tweeted. "We never talked about this brand or googled it or anything like that. As a privacy tech worker, let me explain why this is happening."

I'm back from a week at my mom's house and now I'm getting ads for her toothpaste brand, the brand I've been putting in my mouth for a week. We never talked about this brand or googled it 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 fact is, he says, social media apps, internet browsers and cellular devices don't have to listen because the data freely handed to them on a minute-by-minute basis is "way cheaper and way more powerful."

"People think our phones are listening because it's a simple explanation for a complex reality," Reeve told Newsweek.

In his thread, Reeve explained that purchases, browser history, etc., are all data that is 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 an individual's purchases to their social accounts to create a more holistic profile of the individual. However, it becomes much more complex, and perhaps much scarier, than that.

"If my phone is regularly in the same GPS location as another phone, they take note of that," he said. "They start reconstructing the web of people I'm in regular contact with. The advertisers can cross-reference my interests and browsing history and purchase history to those around me. It starts showing ME different ads based on the people AROUND me."

The advertisers can cross-reference my interests and browsing history and purchase history to those around me. It starts showing ME different ads based on the people AROUND me.

Family. Friends. Coworkers.

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

He explained that even though this aggregation can sometimes lead to an individual receiving an ad he or she doesn't want, the ad still pertains to someone in that individual's circle. This leads to a conversation about a product, which can still drive conversion.

"It never needed to listen to me for this," Reeve said. "It's just comparing aggregated metadata."

"So. They know my mom's toothpaste. They know I was at my mom's. They know my Twitter. Now I get Twitter ads for mom's toothpaste. Your data isn't just about you. It's about how it can be used against every person you know, and people you don't. To shape behavior unconsciously," he continued.

So. They know my mom's toothpaste. They know I was at my mom's. They know my Twitter. Now I get Twitter ads for mom's toothpaste.

Your data isn't just about you. It's about how it can be used against every person you know, and people you don't. To shape behavior unconsciously.

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

He then encouraged his followers to block every app's ads.

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

"Finally! An excellent thread explaining why your phone isn't listening to you, but sometimes feels like it is," said author and journalist Jamie Bartlett.

Finally! An excellent thread explaining why your phone isn’t listening to you, but sometimes feels like it is. https://t.co/VVZMUcTZsL

— Jamie Bartlett (@JamieJBartlett) May 26, 2021

Said another Twitter user: "Social media is free for the users because we aren't their customers, we are the product."

Social media is free for the users because we aren't their customers. We are ✨ the product ✨ https://t.co/liF8IAUhKt

— heriya manawari (@sheriyazaki) May 26, 2021

Others, however, still had their doubts.

"I just don't buy that it's always a coincidence," one user replied. "I mentioned a certain product out loud one day and got ads for that product the next day. Even if it's just the precision of some algorithm, it's still weird."

Someone commented back: "You see hundreds if not thousands of ads a day and don't think anything of it. You just happen to notice the ones that feel coincidental because our brains are designed for pattern recognition. Hitting [the] right people at the right time is what the ad tech industry is all about."

You see hundreds if not thousands of ads a day and don't think anything of it. You just happen to notice the ones that feel coincidental because our brains are designed for pattern recognition. Hitting right people at the right time is what the ad tech industry is all about.

— Joshua Belhumeur (@goodhumeurman) May 26, 2021

Another skeptical tweeter said: "Alright, if phones don't listen in, explain this one to me: I never talk about any sort of family/mental health issues anywhere online. One day, I had a rather long conversation with my sister about these things. Not long after, EVERY SINGLE ad on insta [sic] was about remote therapy."

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

"Two Carnegie Mellon researchers estimated in 2012 that if you read every privacy policy you accept in a year, it would take 76 days," Reeve told Newsweek. "Nine years later I'm certain that number's gone up. Who has the time for that? It's my career and I don't."

Data privacy and data aggregation are complex issues that involve a lot of moving pieces. So, don't be shocked to encounter a toothpaste ad after reading this article. For more detailed information, read the full thread.

Updated 05/27/21, 5:30 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional comment from Reeve.

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