The Silent Eavesdropper: A Deeper Look at Corporate Surveillance and Targeted Advertising

Are our smartphones getting a little too smart to let consumers feel like they have privacy?

Targeted ads are not new to many consumers. It likely does not shock you when, after purchasing some pens online, you suddenly get more pop-up ads for similar products, such as pencils, paper, and even more pens.

Sometimes, however, the ads might appear to show up in a more sinister fashion. Purchasing pens is one thing, but what if you were simply discussing pens with a coworker? Would the subsequent ads for office supplies feel helpful or invasive?

This line of questioning guides Associate Professor Claire M. Segijn’s dive into corporate surveillance and consumer responsiveness.

The Study of Surveillance
Within the last couple of years, Segijn’s work has expanded to encompass various forms of corporate surveillance and conversation-related advertising. However, her primary focus started out in an entirely different area.

As a Ph.D. candidate, Segijn was interested in the ways that humans process information while multitasking. Particularly, she was intrigued by the ways consumers might remember, or forget, brands when advertising pops up in the middle of different tasks. From there, her work shifted to focus on personalized advertising, corporate surveillance, and privacy concerns.

Segijn’s particular interest in surveillance began as a matter of personal interest. In conversations with students and other colleagues, she noted repeated stories of individuals holding conversations near phones. When an Internet browser was next opened, eerily similar advertisements would pop up. Time and again, Segijn heard fears and suspicions surrounding how much a phone hears and what it does with any information that it supposedly gleans. These exact fears sparked a new research journey. 

Phone or Foe?
Last year, Segijn and co-author Dr. Joanna Strycharz, along with an extensive research team, completed a survey of consumers across the United States, the Netherlands and Poland. They asked participants about their experiences with targeted advertising, especially how it related to their perceptions of their phones listening to interpersonal conversations. Segijn and her colleagues found, through both data and interpersonal exchange, that “it’s a topic that a lot of people seem to experience, so that’s why we really wanted to systematically examine it.”

Their discoveries, as reported in ‘“My phone must be listening!”: Consumers’ experiences and beliefs around phones ‘listening’ to offline conversations for personalized advertising”(March 2024), demonstrated that approximately 78 percent of American participants believed that at least one ad they had received on their mobile device was seemingly related to a previous offline conversation.

Segijn quickly concedes that there is not a substantial body of evidence to fully conclude that phones are, in fact, curious about what you chat about with your friends. Tech executives across the board have denied that their devices are eavesdropping on your conversations. In the case of the eerily pertinent advertising, it’s possible that a consumer may have entered a related search earlier that they forgot about, or someone in their geographic area made a similar search, so an advertising algorithm placed the ad on their own feed as well.

With all that being said, the fact that people believe their phones might be listening is a worthy object of study on its own. Segijn’s upcoming project involves taking the advertising professionals’ perspectives into account. Even if there is no feasible way for phones to be tapping into your private conversations, advertisers will likely be interested in what consumers believe about targeted ads and how those beliefs influence their decisions.

This next project brings a unique collaboration to Segijn’s body of work. Students in the Dean’s First-Year Research and Creative Scholars (DFRACS) program will get the chance to participate in parallel tasks. This group will get the opportunity to analyze news reports on the phenomenon that Segijn is studying. These students will get the exciting chance to offer additional content that can create meaningful conversations with Segijn’s findings.

Targeted Ads Outside of Advertising
Segijn is confident that her work has implications reaching far further than digital advertising. “Folk theories,” or informal theories that arise from popular observation, can lead to the investigation of real phenomena. Learning these “folk theories” and other beliefs people hold regarding their phones may inform how journalists and theorists alike discuss corporate surveillance and smart technologies.

From Segijn’s perspective, the more important variables in the debates surrounding targeted advertising aren’t the ads themselves, or even the screens that display them. They are the consumers themselves. “For the effects it may have on consumers,” she posits, “it may not necessarily matter whether it’s actually happening or not.” Regardless of whether or not phones are actually listening in, behavioral shifts in consumers may already be taking place.

Rather than simply act as a helpful piece of equipment, people who are wary of their phones may begin to view their cellphones as monitoring devices. As such, some consumers might begin to change their words and actions within a certain range of their phones. This alteration, known in some circles as a “chilling effect,” may imply further ethical concerns surrounding the use of personal communication devices.

While Segijn remains skeptical of any theories that paint her phone as an ever-listening ear intent on gleaning information about her life, she is excited by the future of smart technology and the conversations to be had surrounding its function and ethics.

Associate Professor Claire M. Segijn holds a Ph.D. and an MSc in Communication Science from the University of Amsterdam. Dr. Segijn is one of the latest recipients of the Warwick Mid-Career Faculty Research Award for her work surrounding media effects of conversation-related advertising.

By Regan Carter

claire segijn