It’s not that I consider myself that naive, particularly in regards to national security, but I must say I was rather taken aback by an on-air conversation between hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski (thank God she didn’t come to a book signing) during an episode of ‘Morning Joe’ just over a week ago.
“This is really weird,” Joe was saying, “I decided to start running and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t post it on social media or email about it, I only talked about it to a friend over the phone, and the next day on my phone, all these ads started coming up for running gear.”
Breathtakingly, Joe added they became more and more specific.
“I talked on the phone about maybe running a 5k, maybe start with a 9 minute mile,” he said, “and the next day, the ads that popped up said, ‘Are you over 40 and trying to run a 9 minute mile?’
Watching this sent a bit of a shiver. I mean, we all know we’ve been under a certain amount of surveillance by the NSA after Edward Snowden’s leak regarding the US and the UK listening to citizen’s conversations, and a little googling will inform you that billions of calls have been harvested for a decade before 9/11, but what is really creepy are the comments made after I posted Joe’s story on Facebook.
“I was telling a friend I wanted to make chicken for dinner and was looking for recipes,” wrote one woman, “and I wasn’t on the phone! I was just talking to a friend and my phone was on the kitchen island. Then I went on-line and the first thing that popped up were these ads for chicken recipes!”
Others mentioned the same sort of occurrence: chatting about needing new tires for their car, or having a skin tag removed, then shocked to see ads appearing nearly immediately. It left them wondering if the microphone of their cell phone was using voice recognition software and then selling that information to companies to use in targeting ad campaigns.
All very ‘1984.’
As I’ve never owned a microwave and therefore, had no Kelly Ann concerns of anyone spying in my kitchen (thank heavens, because it’s a mess ), I thought I’d give this a shot to see if the NSA was listening in to a middle aged woman in her farmhouse in the upstate of South Carolina. My plan included placing my iPhone on the kitchen island as I stood in close proximity, and even circled it, repeating a particular word as well as using it in a conversational phrase, over and over, then jumping on-line to see if any ads for my selected word popped up.
Not wanting to be disturbed by the comings and goings of the dog and countless cats now inhabiting the house, I left the front door ajar so they could go as they pleased. I was ready. I cleared my throat and began, at first conversationally, then stridently, then jokingly.
“Canned ham,” I chirped, “Ham, ham, ham. I’ve been thinking about getting some canned ham. A huge shipment of Spam, really, for a party.” I began to move stealthily around the counter, casting my vocal bait towards the cyber version of Madison Avenue. “You know what I really, really need? SPAM! I’d like to fill the entire house with tons and tons of canned ham.” I began to immerse myself into a more assertive tone, “But where will I find enough Spam to fill the house? There’s no place around that sells the amount of Spam I need. I must have Spam! I must have thousands and thousands of CANS OF SPAM!”
I’m not exactly sure how long the UPS man had been standing there. He’s very nice, indeed, and often brings dog treats for Rosie. Now he stood, balancing a box in his arms, his eyes giving me every indication that he thought he was witnessing Kathy Bates in a scene from the Stephen King horror film, ‘Misery.’
“Oh, hey,” I said, immediately breaking character, “you can just set that down right there on the porch.”
Clearly, some explanation was appropriate.
“I was just checking to see if the government was spying on me,” I started, then realized that sounded even worse. To his rapidly departing brown shirted back, I called, “A friend of mine was talking about getting his skin tags removed, and the next day--”
In a spray of gravel, the brown truck fled up the driveway, as if on fire.
Shrugging, I turned my head back towards the kitchen island. “Well, I see the new bridle I ordered has arrived from UPS,” I commented loudly, then added, “But I didn’t get any SPAM.”
Picking up my phone, then iPad, I began googling my usual news sites to see what ads popped up. Horse stuff. All horse stuff, from countless horse stuff searches in the past.
Not a single ad for Spam.
I figure I’ve either bored the hell out of the NSA to the point they don’t bother to listen in, or advertising targeting know I only buy horse stuff, so why waste the effort?
But two days later, on my Facebook feed? You guessed it
An ad for skin tag removal.
Beneath a recipe for chicken and rice.
Reach PAM STONE at firstname.lastname@example.org.