DATA DUMP: I Was Spied On!

Have you ever had the feeling that someone was watching you?  It could be a weird sixth sense or the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.  You probably look around but don’t see anyone.

I am not given to paranoia or conspiracy theories.  I do my best to follow the unfiltered facts of a situation to draw a reasonable conclusion.  But a situation in December with my mom has me questioning if our phone conversations are being monitored and then spread to advertisers.

I’ve written in this very column (April 2017) about how ISPs can legally monitor and sell your data browsing traffic.  There have been questions around for years if the microphone in your computer and cell phones are being monitored. In fact, many people I know use specific covers or pieces of paper to cover the camera on their laptops.  And just last year a murder charge, that was eventually dropped, gained national attention because the home device Amazon Echo with the Alexa service may have recorded key evidence in the trial.

So, let me set the stage a bit so you can get an idea of what happened to me and my mom.

Last December, I created a work-related video directly on my LinkedIn profile page, which is a business social media platform.  Since this was my very first LinkedIn video, I was surprised to see the over 1,100 views it received.  In a casual conversation with my mom that same week, I made a comment about the number of video views.  I also uploaded a copy of the video to my YouTube channel.  As I write this, it has a whopping 10 views.

Another week or so goes by and I get a call from my mom and she tells me that YouTube recommended to her an Attollo Systems video on cybersecurity out of the blue.  It was the same video that had 1100 views on LinkedIn but barely double digits on YouTube.

Here is why this is odd:

  • My mom does not or has ever had a YouTube or LinkedIn user account.
  • My mom said she occasionally streams some music on YouTube but without an account.
  • The only social media platform we are connected is Facebook.
  • Facebook did not recommend her the video, YouTube did.
  • I am a heavy YouTube user with two separate accounts. One with business and one personal.  Even my personal account was never offered my own video.  And it’s a subscriber account.

For several years now, people have been complaining that Facebook was listening to their conversations and then offering ads related to those same conversations.  I’ve even had a client approach me last summer regarding something similar with Facebook.  Facebook and other tech spokespeople have completely denied the rumor.  Antonio Garcia Martinez wrote a fascinating piece for (November 10, 2017) on how Facebook cannot be listening to your conversation.

A common theory for this is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or recency illusion.  This essentially means something new you just learned is now everywhere.  The best example of this is when my wife and I bought a new car about 5 years ago.  It seemed like everyone in Virginia had the exact same car everywhere I looked, when up until then, I never paid attention to that type of vehicle on the road.

What do I think happened?

Even though its odd that my mom would get my video suggestion without an actual YouTube account, a cognitive bias or recency illusion is still possible.  She just never paid attention until we had a conversation about it.

The alternative is a bit more “eyebrow raising”.  We leave digital fingerprints behind every time we are on the internet and companies have data points that track our habits. We are entering the realm of advanced predictive analytics.  Combine that with advances in artificial intelligence, the speed and scale with how companies “predict” our behavior will become more efficient and faster.  There are enough data points on my mom and myself that YouTube knew to offer her the video.

There is no way to know for certain right now.

Time to get fitted for a tin foil hat.

About John Barker 11 Articles
John has been working in IT for 20 years and is COO at Attollo Systems. He is on the Board of Directors for the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce. He holds a BS in Business, MBA, PMP and multiple technical certifications. John enjoys working out in the gym, bowling and holds a private pilot certificate. He can be reached at: Send Email Follow on Facebook Follow on LinkedIn