We always suspected our phones were listening to us, and now we have proof — advertising company CMG Local Solutions reveals "active listening" uses AI to capture voice data it can sell to target ads

Man in bed looking at a generic phone
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about an item only to have eerily familiar adverts come up on your iPhone or Android afterward? If so, one marketing agency has been bragging about its ability to sell this kind of data to other companies, but its blog advertising the feature has mysteriously gone dark. 

As originally pointed out by 404 Media, CMG (Cox Media Group) Local Solutions calls it Active Listening and specifically references conversations like “Do I see mold on the ceiling?” or “We need a better mortgage rate” as the data it would sell to other companies. On the original page, 404 found the following paragraph:

“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.”

Our Investigation

The page cited by 404 has been taken down by CMG, however, investigations by iMore confirm the group indeed published a blog post on November 28 titled "Active Listening: An Overview." That page states, in no uncertain terms, "Active Listening gives organizations clarity into the most effective channels and timing for their advertising efforts. By incorporating and analyzing customer data gleaned from conversations happening around smart devices, we can pinpoint where and when customers are most likely to engage with ads."

In the FAQ at the bottom of the page, it says “Our technology is on the cutting edge of voice data processing. We can identify buyers based on casual conversations in real-time. It may seem like black magic, but it's not-it's AI. The growing ability to access microphone data on devices like smartphones and tablets enables our technology partner to aggregate and analyze voice data during pre-purchase conversations.”

[Bold emphasis added by iMore]

To paraphrase Jordan Belfort, is this all legal? CMG's post again says "yes", and claims that "When a new app download or update prompts consumers with a multi-page terms of use agreement somewhere in the fine print, Active Listening is often included," meaning that users might actually be agreeing to this practice, if CMG is to be believed. As 404 originally reported, "Cox Media Group (CMG) claims it has the capability to listen to ambient conversations of consumers through embedded microphones" not only in smartphones but also smart TVs "and other devices to gather data and use it to target ads," suggesting that this isn't even a problem confined to our mobile devices. 

Cox Media Group is an American agency that runs its own advertising company, as well as tens of local TV and Radio stations. Its parent company, Apollo Global Management, is a private equity firm with hundreds of billions in assets. If properly introduced to the marketing market, Active Listening could represent a real privacy breach, something that Apple prides itself on. CMG Local Solutions has been involved in 200,000 + digital marketing campaigns since its inception and cites partners and publishers in the field such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and more. As of right now, we are unsure to what degree CMG Local Solutions has used Active Listening but 404 reports "the company notes it is 'a marketing technique fit for the future. Available today'" and states it found a company representative on LinkedIn "explicitly asking interested parties to contact them about the product."

I personally don’t like the idea of my devices listening to me and especially don’t like the idea of that information being used to sell me more things. It’s hard to believe that many of the users of modern smartphones are aware of, or consent to, this kind of information being used, aside from what CMG lists in its FAQ about user agreements. As the CMG Local Solutions site references its use of AI to do this, there is a chance it works like smart assistants – processing data without storing it. This means that your device can display adverts based on something you’ve said today but may not use that to form a wider dataset on your gender, age, hobbies, and more. Apple prides itself on taking user privacy very seriously, and touts privacy as one of the defining features of using its products, something Active Listening, if it's being used on iPhones, could seriously undermine. 

As these pages have been taken down, CMG Local Solutions likely recognizes how unpopular this kind of tech is. Hopefully, this will deter it from further exploring Active Listening. There is a possibility CMG published the article in error or has taken the page down to revise it, and the company wasn't immediately available to comment on the story. We'll update this story accordingly with more information should that change. 

More from iMore

James Bentley

James is a staff writer and general Jack of all trades at iMore. With news, features, reviews, and guides under his belt, he has always liked Apple for its unique branding and distinctive style. Originally buying a Macbook for music and video production, he has since gone on to join the Apple ecosystem with as many devices as he can fit on his person. 


With a degree in Law and Media and being a little too young to move onto the next step of his law career, James started writing from his bedroom about games, movies, tech, and anything else he could think of. Within months, this turned into a fully-fledged career as a freelance journalist. Before joining iMore, he was a staff writer at Gfinity and saw himself published at sites like TechRadar, NME, and Eurogamer. 


As his extensive portfolio implies, James was predominantly a games journalist before joining iMore and brings with him a unique perspective on Apple itself. When not working, he is trying to catch up with the movies and albums of the year, as well as finally finishing the Yakuza series. If you like Midwest emo music or pretentious indie games that will make you cry, he’ll talk your ear off.

  • Just_Me_D
    Unless I missed it, the article did not indicate “how” this is being done. I mean, wouldn’t this require access to my iPhone’s microphone? With the exception of the app that controls guest access to my community, no other 3rd-party app has access to the microphone.
    Reply
  • Annie_M
    Just_Me_D said:
    Unless I missed it, the article did not indicate “how” this being done. I mean, wouldn’t this require access to my iPhone’s microphone? With the exception of the app that controls guest access to my community, no other 3rd-party app has access to the microphone.
    Great question!!!
    Reply
  • Bla1ze
    Just_Me_D said:
    Unless I missed it, the article did not indicate “how” this is being done. I mean, wouldn’t this require access to my iPhone’s microphone? With the exception of the app that controls guest access to my community, no other 3rd-party app has access to the microphone.
    Not everyone is so diligent with their permissions. They prey on people just hitting accept on the T&C's and permission windows. It's also not solely based on phones either, the company is basically Cox and think about all the places they could potentially embed that sort of technology. Have Cox as an ISP, it could be in the router they provide you or it could be in your set top box or built into their Android / iOS apps.
    Reply
  • EdwinG
    Just_Me_D said:
    Unless I missed it, the article did not indicate “how” this is being done. I mean, wouldn’t this require access to my iPhone’s microphone? With the exception of the app that controls guest access to my community, no other 3rd-party app has access to the microphone.
    From the original reporting, it’s not even clear if they are doing it on the iPhone at all.

    It seems to be those “smart speakers” that are being leveraged.
    Reply
  • Just_Me_D
    EdwinG said:
    From the original reporting, it’s not even clear if they are doing it on the iPhone at all.

    It seems to be those “smart speakers” that are being leveraged.

    True, however, what’s depicted in the article happens to my wife all the time, and then she asks me how is it happening? I I’ve stopped answering the question….(laughing)….She’s always on Amazon, she uses Google exclusively to search, shop, navigate, and then she has an Amazon Echo Show, a Google speaker, a gazillion web pages open on her iPhone. You get the picture.
    Reply
  • Just_Me_D
    Bla1ze said:
    Not everyone is so diligent with their permissions. They prey on people just hitting accept on the T&C's and permission windows. It's also not solely based on phones either, the company is basically Cox and think about all the places they could potentially embed that sort of technology. Have Cox as an ISP, it could be in the router they provide you or it could be in your set top box or built into their Android / iOS apps.

    That’s true.
    Reply
  • EdwinG
    Just_Me_D said:
    True, however, what’s depicted in the article happens to my wife all the time, and then she asks me how is it happening? I I’ve stopped answering the question….(laughing)….She’s always on Amazon, she uses Google exclusively to search, shop, navigate, and then she has an Amazon Echo Show, a Google speaker, a gazillion web pages open on her iPhone. You get the picture.
    First thing that comes to mind: Chrome’s super-cookie (whatever term they call it today).

    But yeah, cross-site tracking is very much a thing, even if Apple tries to make it as hard as possible.
    Reply
  • darthor
    It would be helpful if the article listed the CMG apps or libraries that might be actively listening so if we have them we could remove them.
    Reply
  • wowthisguyreally
    Just_Me_D said:
    Unless I missed it, the article did not indicate “how” this is being done. I mean, wouldn’t this require access to my iPhone’s microphone? With the exception of the app that controls guest access to my community, no other 3rd-party app has access to the microphone.
    Would they even need to implement the microphone access toggle in their app setting if it states in their TCs they will have access to it and by downloading whatever app is acceptance of that? Apple lets apps control things that should be OS specific. Also, Apple does no verifying that what they have access to and the data the collect via their appstore page is even truce.
    Reply
  • EdwinG
    wowthisguyreally said:
    Would they even need to implement the microphone access toggle in their app setting if it states in their TCs they will have access to it and by downloading whatever app is acceptance of that?
    They do. When an app requires audio input (microphone) or video input (camera), the API they use will trigger a permission request to the user to ask for said permission.

    iOS and iPadOS are pretty locked down on interactions that control the hardware that the device comes with. A user can always come back and remove the permission that they deem unnecessary for a given app.
    Reply