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Digital fears: "The GPS was off - how does Google still know where I am?"


They gave us their scariest digital moments. How do services know what we are talking about, where we are and who we know? Sometimes the answer is simple.

Is there anyone listening? Are deleted pictures really gone? Does my smartphone make me addicted? Which of these worries are justified, which exaggerated, answered the ZEIT ONLINE focus "digital fears".

Technology can be scary. Especially if you do not understand them. The initial enjoyment of a device or product can quickly turn into mistrust when events are not easily explained. To kick off the focus on Digital Fears , ZEIT ONLINE has its readers after experiences with technology that they could not explain themselves and they found scary or at least irritating.

We received more than 200 submissions. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is hardly possible to fully understand what is behind the described process - for example, when it comes to whether the location sharing of the mobile phone at that time was actually completely turned off. An enlightenment of individual cases is therefore more difficult than we had hoped.

However, the reactions to the reader's appeal show: Many of the described anxiety moments are similar. They can be reduced to about a handful of phenomena, which apparently many of our readers have experienced before.

"Is there anyone listening?"

By far the most common submission is the assumption that companies like Facebook or Amazon may secretly overhear conversations and then post appropriate ads on their websites and apps. Some excerpts:

"On vacation, my dad, who does not own Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., talked to me on the golf course about the need for sensible golf shoes, and later, when he was doing a trivial thing, he got targeted ads on golf shoe websites."

One day, a colleague told me something about her horse for half an hour, my smartphone was lying on my desk, there was no app open, and for two days I was almost exclusively shown on horseback advertising on horseback. "

"I talked to friends about wooden wristwatches and got weekly promos on Instagram for wooden wristwatches, my smartphone ware locked up and Instagram not open! I had no connection to it before and never looked for wristwatches on the internet."

Just talked about something and a few minutes later, the appropriate ad appears. That can not be a coincidence - or is it? In one article we explain the phenomenon in detail and explain why it is unlikely that Facebook is constantly listening - and many of the arguments listed there can also be transferred to other apps. First, the data volumes would be far too large to be unnoticeable in the monthly data volume. Second, researchers have failed to prove in scientific research that popular apps turn the microphone on and off and respond to specific keywords. Third, the providers themselves contradict the listening practice. It does not have to be believed, but with Facebook and Google now being watched more closely by policymakers and regulators, a snoop on billions of people would be an economic risk.

An even more plausible explanation is provided by the so-called tracking : this is the common practice of linking individual users with as many individual data records as possible in order to present them with the most relevant advertising possible. Tracking works not only in the browser with the help of cookies, but also the synchronization of location data of a smartphone or the comparison of address books.

In the case of the golf shoes, the father's phone might have registered that he was on a golf course for a long time. This suggests that he plays golf and is looking for early or late new shoes. He may have previously searched for specific products on Google or in an online shop participating in Google's advertising program, or entered the address of the golf course in Google Maps. Even if the weeks or even months ago, the tracking algorithm could have realized by visiting the golf course that this topic is relevant again and then switch the corresponding display.

In the other two cases, it seems that advertising has actually been selected solely on the basis of entertainment. However, this is not yet a proof for monitoring the platforms. For example, allowing Instagram or Facebook to access the address book tells the platform who they are friends with - if they do not already know that, because we're friends with or follow them on the platforms. If a friend gets on Instagram wooden wristwatch ads, it may be because he follows many outdoor photographers or is interested in sustainable products. Maybe he even clicks on the ad or has even been actively looking for watches. For the advertising algorithms, this could be an indication that may also be friendly users interested in this product - and also show them the advertising.

That's just one conceivable scenario. Facebook states that advertisements use "information about you from your Facebook account", which theoretically includes contacts. Gizmodo, the technology research website from last year, suggests that contact lists of Facebook users are shared with advertisers.

Source: zeit

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