The idea that your apps could be listening to you is a pretty creepy thought. In fact, I would want to say that it would be, to some level, some kind of invasion of privacy. It’s the idea that the apps found on your phone could be listening in to the ambient sounds around it as it’s charging by your bed, or as you’re talking to your bestie about how you ate one too many cupcakes yesterday, and now you feel fat.
The app being accused of listening in on us is, specifically, Facebook. With this one specific app now in our sites, we can now ask, is Facebook listening in on us though our phones, and then subsequently targeting us with ads, based on what it heard? The short answer is no. But does that mean it isn’t listening to us at all? Well, apparently, it’s listening sometimes, but not for the crime in question. This is causing confusion with some people that the “audio discovery” feature might be used for ad targeting.
There is an optional feature where the mobile version of Facebook lets people to share clips of the music that they’re listening to, or the TV shows they’re watching. All you have to do is turn on your mic when you begin typing out a status update on your phone, tuning into ambient sounds, identifying any matching media content, and then giving you the ability to share on your post.
Facebook insists that the microphone is on for only limited constraints, so it can’t easedrop on your conversions. So really, there is no way it can target you with ads if it isn’t even listening to you most of the time.
Back in May of 2014, when the feature first rolled out, there was a statement made by a Facebook product manager that Facebook might target ads “in the future” based on audio cues. But that’s just the thing. The manager said they might use it. It doesn’t mean they will.
The spokesperson did point out a blog post, which lays out the limits of what Facebook listens to. Basically, the only time the microphone is turned on is when the user is actually tapping out a status update. Also, Facebook doesn’t record or store your conversations.
But, unfortunately, there will always be conspiracy theories about it. This week, there was a Reddit post that caught some attentions, written by NewHoustonian, where he wrote about a peculiar ad that he found on Facebook, right after killing an insect and talking about it with his girlfriend:
After finding and killing a cockroach in my condo, my girlfriend and I were discussing the need for bug spray and our general disgust for bugs. Perhaps, I was speaking quite frantically and loudly because I’m terrified of bugs.
After the incident, we made no internet searches of any kind whatsoever. Nor have I ever searched for anything related to bugs or pest control because mere images freak me out. Yet, within 7-10 minutes of the fracas, an ad appeared on Facebook (on my iPhone) with large pictures of creepy crawlies and the caption “Need Pest Control?”
We were immediately creeped out by the ad’s apparent prescience, and the only explanation we could contrive was that Facebook had picked up on something we said from the microphone.
There was quite a response to this post, as 1,100+ comments were written up on the post. There was even a follow-up post, which garnered over 5,000 upvotes and over 1,500 comments. Many people on Reddit comment with examples of suspicions of companies, like Google, Facebook and Apple, have been targeting ads based on what we talk about.
Declining to comment on the Reddit post, Facebook has pointed to their post from 2014, saying that the info included in the post is still true to this day. Following is the important part of the post:
Myth: People have to use this new feature.
Fact: Nope, this feature is completely optional.
If you don’t turn it on, we won’t use your microphone to try and match TV or music when you write a status update. If you do choose to turn it on and later decide it’s not for you, you can easily turn it off at any time.
Myth: The feature listens to and stores your conversations.
Fact: Nope, no matter how interesting your conversation, this feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn’t listening to or storing your conversations.
Here’s how it works: if you choose to turn the feature on, when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can’t be reversed into the original audio because they don’t contain enough information.
Myth: Facebook is always listening using your microphone.
Fact: Nope, if you choose to turn this feature on, it will only use your microphone (for 15 seconds) when you’re actually writing a status update to try and match music and TV.
Myth: Facebook is automatically posting what you’re listening to.
Fact: We do not automatically post anything about what you’re listening to. If you’ve chosen to use this feature, and we find a match, you choose whether you want to include the TV show or song in your status update.
Myth: Facebook is storing the information from this feature indefinitely.
Fact: If you’ve chosen to use this feature and we find a match, you get to choose whether you post that you’re listening to a particular song or TV show. That post will then appear on Facebook for as long as you choose and to whatever audience you choose, just like any other update.
If we find a match and you don’t post, we log that a particular song or TV show was matched, but we don’t connect this with your profile in any way. We use this to keep a chart of the most watched and listened to songs and TV shows.
If we don’t find a match, we log that we failed. We don’t store the fingerprint.