The marketing team within media giant Cox Media Group (CMG) claims it has the capability to listen to ambient conversations of consumers through embedded microphones in smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices to gather data and use it to target ads, according to a review of CMG marketing materials by 404 Media and details from a pitch given to an outside marketing professional. Called “Active Listening,” CMG claims the capability can identify potential customers “based on casual conversations in real time.”
The news signals that what a huge swath of the public has believed for years—that smartphones are listening to people in order to deliver ads—may finally be a reality in certain situations. Until now, there was no evidence that such a capability actually existed, but its myth permeated due to how sophisticated other ad tracking methods have become.
It is not immediately clear if the capability CMG is advertising and claims works is being used on devices in the market today, but the company notes it is “a marketing technique fit for the future. Available today.” 404 Media also found a representative of the company on LinkedIn explicitly asking interested parties to contact them about the product. One marketing professional pitched by CMG on the tech said a CMG representative explained the prices of the service to them.
“What would it mean for your business if you could target potential clients who are actively discussing their need for your services in their day-to-day conversations? No, it's not a Black Mirror episode—it's Voice Data, and CMG has the capabilities to use it to your business advantage,” CMG’s website reads.
The part of CMG advertising the capability is CMG Local Solutions. CMG itself is owned by Apollo Global Management and Cox Enterprises, which includes the ISP Cox Communications. CMG operates a wide array of local news television and radio stations.
With Active Listening, CMG claims to be able to “target your advertising to the EXACT people you are looking for.” The goal is to target potential clients or customers based on what they say in “their day to day conversations,” the website adds. Specifically, those could include:
Clients can “claim” a territory where they want to use CMG’s services, which are available in a 10 or 20 mile radius, the website says. After setup, “Active Listening begins and is analyzed via AI to detect pertinent conversations via smartphones, smart tvs and other devices,” the website adds. CMG also claims it installs a tracking pixel on its client’s website to monitor the return on investment (ROI).
With an audience created, CMG then delivers adverts to these people through streaming TV, streaming audio, display ads, YouTube, and Google and Bing search, the website says.
“The result? Unprecedented understanding of consumer behavior, so we can deliver personalized ads that make your target audience think: wow, they must be a mind reader,” another section of CMG’s website reads.
Claims about this capability raises obvious and immediate legal concerns; intercepting communications without proper consent can violate wiretapping laws. CMG’s website addresses this with a section that starts “We know what you are thinking…”
“Is this legal? YES- it is totally legal for phones and devices to listen to you. That's because consumers usually give consent when accepting terms and conditions of software updates or app downloads,” the website says.
Beyond CMG’s website, very little information is available about the capability, including how exactly the data is gathered, be that via a software development kit (SDK) bundled into apps, or via collection at another point. For its part, Apple does alert iPhone users when an app is accessing the device’s microphone with a small icon in the UI.
The marketing professional pitched by CMG told 404 Media that after a call with the company, they disabled microphone access on much of their own technology: “I immediately removed all my Amazon Echo devices and locked down microphone permissions on things like my phone as receiving confirmation they are doing things like this have confirmed my worst fears and I, for one, will not take part in it,” they said.
CMG says “the ROI is already impressive” and is actively soliciting potential customers, though. On LinkedIn, Chris Marxmiller, a senior sales consultant at CMG, invites people in his bio to “Ask me about our NEW product - ACTIVE LISTENING.” Marxmiller did not respond to a request for comment which asked for more information on the Active Listening product.
CMG lists a number of other companies as its partners and publishers. These include Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. Microsoft declined to comment. Google told 404 Media in a statement that “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.” Google did not answer 404 Media’s question in its statement.
Amazon said in a statement that “the advertising product being described would not be possible with Echo devices. We do not share voice recordings with third parties.”
CMG said in a statement that “CMG Local Solutions markets a wide range of advertising tools. Like other advertising companies, some of those tools include third-party vendor products powered by data sets sourced from users by various social media and other applications then packaged and resold to data servicers. Advertising data based on voice and other data is collected by these platforms and devices under the terms and conditions provided by those apps and accepted by their users, and can then be sold to third-party companies and converted into anonymized information for advertisers. This anonymized data then is resold by numerous advertising companies.”
“CMG businesses do not listen to any conversations or have access to anything beyond a third-party aggregated, anonymized and fully encrypted data set that can be used for ad placement. We regret any confusion and we are committed to ensuring our marketing is clear and transparent,” the statement added.