e, you have had this unnerving experience at some point: After having a face-to-face conversation with a friend or a partner in a private setting, you pick up your phone and see ads on social media that echo the details of your chat to an uncanny degree—ads for picnic baskets after a discussion of weekend barbecue plans, or a sale on flights to a place you just mentioned wanting to visit.
The less tech-savvy (or more conspiracy-minded) among us might worry that an app or the phone itself is somehow recording our conversations. This is not true—though if you’re still not convinced you can change the settings on your phone to reduce the amount of data apps can collect.
Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist whose “Time Well Spent” movement aims to reclaim time and attention from digital devices, explained what’s actually going on with those spot-on ads at a recent panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. No secret recording is involved, but his description still offers eye-opening perspective on the amount of data advertisers have at their disposal: