Targeted ads: Is social media spying on us?

Pricewatch: Conspiracy theories abound but the truth is probably more prosaic

Have you ever been targeted by an ad for a particular product on social media just moments after you mentioned that exact product in a conversation with a friend?

Have you ever chatted about a hotel on WhatsApp and then logged in to your Instagram account only to see a picture of that very hotel coming up in your feed?

You have? You’re probably not alone.

Any prolific user of any social media platform has stories of apparently random ads appearing almost as soon they think – and then talk – of them. According to internet conspiracy theorists, the giants of the tech world are using the microphones on our smartphones to listen in to our conversations and then deploy mysterious algorithms to work out what we want (or what it wants us to want) before offering it to us.


So loud has the conspiracy chatter grown, that Facebook has been forced to issue statements insisting it does not "listen" to our conversations for advertising purposes.

Snopes, the always-excellent website for ruining urban legends, has backed up the social media giant and says the rumour started with claims from a University of South Florida professor that Facebook was listening to her conversations. “Based on this rather flimsy bit of anecdotal speculation, users expressed concerns that soon ballooned into full-blown conspiracy theories,” it says.

A perhaps more plausible – if duller – reason you sometimes see ads for things you have just talked about is due to something known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, that states that once you talk or experience something, you are more aware of and will notice it more.

While Facebook may not be eavesdropping on us – the manner in which the story exploded and continues to circulate is reflective of our time and our fears technology is spying on us.

Such fears are only going to magnify in the years ahead as we step further into the brave new world of automation and artificial intelligence. A new study addresses elements of this brave new world and paints a picture of conflicted Irish consumers who want a “more tailored customer experience” while being “concerned about giving out their personal details”.

Such concerns mean people have taken to withholding the exact information companies need to understand and anticipate their needs. So, on the one hand, we want companies to give us what we want almost before we know we want it, but, on the other, we don’t want to give them what they want to be able to do that?

Confused? So is Pricewatch.

Digital trust a key consumer concern

The 13th Accenture Strategy Global Consumer Pulse Research gauges the attitudes and expectations of more than 25,000 consumers around the world, including hundreds of consumers here, about their appetite for more intuitive, technology-driven brand experiences.

The research shows that 43 per cent of us are more likely to shop with companies that always personalise experiences, as long as our trust isn’t compromised.

Over a quarter of those polled said they would find great value in services that intuitively learn about their needs over time to customise product, service or content recommendations.

A further 52 per cent of Irish consumers would use ‘smart-reordering’ services, where intelligent sensors in the home preempt when a product, such as laundry detergent, is running low and automatically re-orders it on their behalf. Another 27 per cent use ‘digital assistants’ such as Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa.

While the majority of us – 81 per cent – are satisfied with the experience, 41 per cent say it can feel slightly creepy when technology starts to correctly interpret and anticipate their needs and 39 per cent of Irish consumers fear intelligent new services will come to know too much about them and their family.

The study says 56 per cent of consumers are frustrated when companies fail to deliver relevant, personalised shopping experiences and 44 per cent are concerned about personal data privacy as they subscribe to intelligent services designed to enhance their shopping experience.

As organisations strive to become ‘living businesses’ – companies that are extraordinarily pre-emptive and responsive to changing customer needs – the study revealed a lack of trust that must be addressed before true personalisation can be delivered. Accenture has calculated that poor personalisation and lack of trust cost Irish organisations about €6 billion last year, as 38 per cent of consumers switched companies.

"As the adoption of technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital assistants increases, organisations are better positioned to anticipate and flex to customer's individual needs and deliver unique and memorable experiences," says Vicky Godolphin of Accenture's digital arm.

“This in turn helps to enhance the customer relationship and increase customer advocacy. Those organisations that support this with a deep focus on developing digital trust will hit a ‘sweet spot’, where Irish customers will be willing to share more personal insights in return for greater value, with the confidence that their data is protected.”

The lack of digital trust is a barrier, with 94 per cent of Irish consumers saying it is extremely important for companies protect the privacy of their personal information. Another 82 per cent say it is frustrating to realise some cannot be trusted to use it appropriately.

"Digital trust will become increasingly challenging for companies to achieve as they look to capture new categories of customer data, such as biometric, geo-location and even genomic data, in their drive for greater relevance. Customer concerns will inevitably rise, so it's critical that companies have strong data security and privacy measures in place, they give customers full control over their data, and are transparent with how they use it. This is particularly pertinent as organisations prepare for the General Data Protection Regulation coming into force in May 2018," says Victor Koss of Accenture's Business Strategy division.

The less than sexy sounding General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is going to be a big deal later this year. It comes into force in May and will govern the privacy practices of companies handling EU citizens’ data. It aims to give control over our personal data back to us and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business by unifying the regulation within the EU. There are potentially huge fines for firms that don’t abide by the new rules.

In October 2017, the Government allocated an additional €4 million to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner under Budget 2018 to allow it to recruit up to 40 new employees ahead of the introduction of GDPR.

"In today's world, the way we handle data will determine to a large extent our economic future and personal safety. We need modern rules to respond to new risks, says Vera Jourova, EU commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality last month.

After speaking, she was immediately targeted with Facebook ads trying to flog her self-improving economics text books and canisters of pepper spray.

No, no she wasn’t.