Is Facebook Listening In On Me Through My Phone?
How many of us have felt like Facebook is listening to our phone conversations? I swear I just mentioned these new Kendra Scott earrings to my friend and now I’m seeing them in my newsfeed? Disturbing! Right? Or is it just effective?
It is absolutely unnerving. You feel like you just mentioned to a friend, or even just thought about an item and then you go on Facebook and there it is right in your News Feed. You are not alone in this feeling, almost everyone who uses Facebook has some variation of this happening and has had the same feeling of being spied on. So, Facebook must be listening in on us in some way, right? If not, how is this happening, and for so many people?
Let’s begin with the facts. Facebook clearly says that they are not listening. In fact, they have outright denied this claim and have said they are not using your phone’s microphone to show you relevant ads. They say they only access your microphone if you have given the app permission AND if you are actively using a specific feature requiring that audio.
There are other sources that say it isn’t so as well. CNET did a study specifically trying to prove Facebook is listening in and came up short on any conclusive evidence. The test wasn’t overly scientific, but they did settle on the fact that it was data points and not listened to conversations that led to the ads they received.
Are you convinced? Although the test doesn’t 100% disprove the idea, there have been more tests and security experts trying to prove Facebook listens in on our phone but they too come up short in finding any evidence.
What does Mark Zuckerburg have to say about all of this? Well, when he was directly asked this question by Congress last year he gave an emphatic “No.” He said, “No. Let me be clear on this: You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on through your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg replied. “We don’t do that.” He said no, yet the conspiracy theory continues to thrive on social media with many still unsure of the truth.
One of the main reasons the conspiracy theory is so believable is because the ads truly do appear to be THAT accurate and targeted. So, if they are not listening in, how are they getting the targeting so right?
The answer is complex. There are in fact a tremendous amount of other ways for Facebook to come up with targeting options. For example, have you taken a quiz on Facebook? Have you posted anything on Facebook? Have you checked in somewhere? Have you “liked” something? Do you have “friends” on Facebook? Have you shared any information online? Have you opted into apps and websites and just clicked “I agree” to terms and conditions? Likely you have, and the digital eye in the sky is watching our every move. It doesn’t even have to be on Facebook, you just have to go online and or have a phone.
Tracking pixels are constantly in motion in the background, raining down with every click and measuring our activity. What sites are we looking at? What are we clicking on? What sites are we lingering on longer? What sites do we bounce off immediately? Millions of data points are consistently and constantly being tracked and connected behind the scenes to determine our online behavior. This technology allows us to be put into targeting categories that define our demographics, interests and behaviors so advertisers can easily and sometimes eerily market ads to the right person. Ads can be hyper-targeted because tech companies know what websites we are visiting. Online activity is constantly tracked which allows not only Facebook to track our likes and dislikes, but Google and many others as well.
It is not just online. The technology also knows were we go, places we frequent often, maybe even the brand of coffee we drink. How? Through our geolocation data. Consider this example, most days of the week I leave my house around 7:50 am and drive my two kids to school, oftentimes, I stop and grab a coffee at my local Starbucks. I don’t check in anywhere or report to anyone where I am going, but my phone does, and it is always with me. I pull through the carpool line at the high school. My phone is pinging my latitude and longitude location and bouncing off cell towers. My Bluetooth is on, of course, how else would I take a call but through my car connection? I repeat this activity a few times in the morning and I’ve now put myself into a category of “parent of high school aged child.” Why? Simply because I am near the school most weekday mornings at a certain time. I move along, I hit Starbucks on my way to elementary school, my phone is still reporting my location and I also paid with my app, so not only my location is recorded but also my exact purchase. I move onto elementary drop off and put myself into the “mom of elementary age child” category, and the saga continues.
Technology can report what we have recently purchased. Stew on this for a moment. It has also been reported that Google knows about 70 percent of all payment card purchases in the US. 70%! That is a huge number. So that dress I purchased online yesterday? I’m going to see ads for dresses online today.
This type of data exists on all digital consumers and their friends. Even if you’ve never searched for a certain product online, if your friends have, you’re much more likely to see ads for that. The same goes for just being in the same location as someone else. Despite all of these facts, the conspiracy theory does still exist and it does make people nervous. If you fall into that category, consider the fact that it would be completely illegal for an app like Facebook to listen in without your permission. If they were in fact secretly recording people’s conversations and using that information for targeting ads, they would be breaking the Wiretap Act, and if caught violating its billions of users, they would be subject to trillions of dollars in liabilities.
Frankly, listening is not even needed for ad targeting, that’s so 2010!
It was recently discovered that Facebook is listening in on audio snippets, but NOT in the conspiracy theory way I addressed above. What was happening? Facebook was taking snippets of audio from their messenger app (where there is a subset of Facebook users who use Facebook transcription services), and sending those snippets to human people to transcribe. WHY? It helps with the accuracy of the conversations and helps the bots who do the transcription to eliminate errors over time.
This is very close to what Google, Apple and Amazon do as well. So why is it very close and not exactly what they do? Well, Apple, Google and Amazon are all doing this for the voice assistance and the big difference is you first say, “Hey Alexa!” or “Hey Google!” and then you talk. For Facebook, users were not expecting to be recorded and did not know this was happening. They were not saying “Hey Facebook” first, they were just recording a message to send to a friend. Facebook HAS said they have now stopped doing this due to the scrutiny.