The Samel family immigrated to the U.S. from Sudan in 2010. They became naturalized citizens in May 2015 and moved into a new house in Iowa City, Iowa, that December.

The house had actually been built for them with help from Habitat for Humanity and as part of the city's National Day of Service and Remembrance in honor of 9/11. The Muslim family — Amar Samel and his wife, Muna Abdalla, along with their four children — were happily settling into their new American lives, including jobs and schooling.

They'd been living in the house 11 months when Amar Samel returned home from a memorial service to find a less-than-welcoming note on the door:

“You can all go home now. We don’t want (a racial epithet) and terrorists here. #Trump.”

Photo via Stephen Mally/The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette, used with permission.

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When I found out I was pregnant in October 2018, I had planned to keep the news a secret from family for a little while — but my phone seemed to have other ideas.

Within just a few hours of finding out the news, I was being bombarded with ads for baby gear, baby clothes and diapers on Facebook, Instagram and pretty much any other site I visited — be it my phone or on my computer.

Good thing my family wasn't looking over my shoulder while I was on my phone or my secret would have been ruined.

I'm certainly not alone in feeling like online ads can read your mind.

When I started asking around, it seemed like everyone had their own similar story: Brian Kelleher told me that when he and his wife met, they started getting ads for wedding rings and bridal shops within just a few weeks. Tech blogger Snezhina Piskov told me that she started getting ads for pocket projectors after discussing them in Messenger with her colleagues. Meanwhile Lauren Foley, a writer, told me she started getting ads for Happy Socks after seeing one of their shops when she got off the bus one day.

When online advertising seems to know us this well, it begs the question: are our phones listening to us?

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