Is Facebook Listening to Your Conversation?


Alright, we’re going to do it. We’re going to talk about Facebook and the fact that a lot of you think the company is listening to your conversations, even when you aren’t using the app. Like, the one time my friend mentioned a random musically to me, and I saw an ad for it in my Instagram feed later that night.

Facebook owns Instagram, by the way, if you weren’t aware. I don’t even go to musicals, so this was a super weird ad for me to see. Which leads me to the question is Facebook tapping our microphones to listen in on everything we say, to then, serve us ads.- Yes or no. Does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?- No.- While I believe that Facebook isn’t listening to our conversations, it has previously screwed up user privacy, particularly, with its Cambridge Analytica scandal. So its always good to be skeptical of what the company says and what it does.

Every expert I talked to for this video believes Facebook isn’t listening. Actual evidence proves it isn’t, too. But the scary thing is you produce so much data that Facebook probably doesn’t even need your microphone to learn everything about you. Now, let’s dive in. To answer whether Facebook is tapping your microphone, we need to answer two main things. One is it even technically feasible for Facebook to tap billions of peoples microphones and parse all their voice data to then determine who is speaking and about what and to. Why would they want to do this, anyway, and would it really be that lucrative? On the technical side, yes, it is totally possible for Facebook to manage this voice data.

Facebook isn't listening

Nigel Cannings, a co-founder, and CTO of the company called Intelligent Voice says all that’s really needed to parse voice data is serious processing power, which Facebook likely has.- All of the technology exists today. It would be a very feasible technical challenge for a large tech company to undertake.- And figuring out what you’re saying is super easy.- What has been said and what it means are extremely simple.- Determining whos talking varies in difficulty, depending on the circumstances. Like, if you’re calling from your Facebook account, it’s pretty easy to figure out whos speaking and attribute that data to that specific person.- The ability to distinguish means a British male of a particular age just from my voice is very simple. And to distinguish you as an American woman of a particular age is pretty simple.

For example, Facebook could easily tell that I’m the one talking about Oreos or whatever else if I’m calling someone from my Facebook account. However, a stray microphone conversation isn’t as easy to attribute, and this is what most people are probably worried about. Let’s say you’re having lunch with a friend and at least 20 other people are around you. Facebook would probably struggle to figure out whos talking. Cannings says the company would likely need additional metadata to narrow the field. It could easily determine the age and sex of the person talking just from their voice.

So if it could also figure out geolocation data, which Facebook and Instagram collect, it could then get closer to figuring out which user is talking. If Facebook set up a specific geofence, it could even further narrow its options by identifying everyone else in the area, and then matching voice data up against its user base.- Were spewing geolocation data all the time.

So if I could narrow it down to, say, a thousand people in the particular geo-fence, then, if you were recording something on your phone, I’ve got access to that. And I also knew the biometric profile of the other thousand people in that geo-fence, I could do a pretty good job of working out that it was you.- But Facebook is a massive platform with billions of users. If you’re in a dense city like New York, with me and millions of other residents, this would likely be a difficult task. In a small town, it’d probably be possible, but also would require a decent amount of work just to figure out how to target you with ads.

If I was trying to match it against the hundred million or billion other people on my platform, then, no, I couldn’t.So its still a matter of scale. The ability to do one too many matchings on biometrics exists, but the more people you throw into the pot, the less accurate it becomes.- Alright. So let’s say Facebook could listen to and recognize individuals. Does it actually need to? If the company isn’t listening in like it says, then, how are we all getting such scary on-point ads? Is voice data even worth collecting?- I actually think that voice data probably give up more information about ourselves than almost any other sort of data. Because not only have you got the contents of what’s said, you’ve also got a very rich seam of emotionally content that goes with it, as well.

Facebook has access to something even better than voice data, everything else that you do. I called Andres Arrieta, the Tech Products Manager at the Electronic Frontier Foundation to chat about Facebooks tracking technology.

Tech Products Manager

They have so much data on us that they don’t need to turn on the microphone.- Let’s run through the things facebook likely already knows about us. It knows your location because of where you say you live, but also the location tracking permissions you give the company app. It knows your self-identified demographics, what you look like because of the photos you upload, your family members and friends, and, crucially, your browsing habits.

Facebook uses its ad tracking technology, called the Facebook Pixel, to follow you around the web and keep tabs on wherever you end up. This pixel, which website owners can build onto their sites, helps advertisers figure out if their Facebook ads have been successful. Oh, and you know those Like buttons you see on every single website? Those track you, too. Facebook has even been able to identify users sexual preferences based on the sites they visit. That’s how the company accidentally outed gay users to advertisers years ago.- This goes much further than just uploading a simple profile and showing you what type of beer or what motorcycle you want to buy.

This is about your really, really personal relationships and things that you might have not shared with others.- Facebook tracks users IRL purchase history, too.- They do buy your credit history. We tend to think of online tracking something that is contained online, but its no longer contained online. They’re putting all these other sources, online and offline, together to reveal our complete lives.- It uses this data in the aggregate to anonymously verify that its ads actually drive sales up. Suffice it to say, the company knows a lot about you.

You can witness ad trackers in the wild through plugins like the Electronic Frontier Foundations Privacy Badger, which shows all the third party trackers keeping tabs on you. It says The Verge has more than one hundred trackers, which is kind of not a good look for us, but you also don’t pay us for this content. And that’s why Arrieta thinks Facebook isn’t listening to our conversations. But, if you require more hard evidence, the EFF even proved that the company wasn’t listening to using a news segment with CBS where it monitored traffic from a users phone. It didn’t see any audio recordings going to Facebook. Andres thinks that maybe people notice ads more after they’ve talked about a specific topic.

Most of the time, its because we sometimes actually don’t pay attention to the ads. And it’s totally possible that that ad had been playing before, but because of its such a small brand, you never noticed.- I know that possible explanation isn’t totally satisfying, but in some ways, it’s scarier. Facebook knows everything about you without needing your microphone. If you’re concerned about ad tracking, and Facebook, in particular, you could delete your account, which also means deleting WhatsApp and Instagram.Sorry about it. You could also try an ad tracking extension like Privacy Badger, which lets you turn off ad trackers. Arrieta suggests using different browsers and diversifying where you search so that companies cant build a complete profile of you. You could also enable Do Not Track in your browser which asks websites to not track you. They don’t have to honor your request, though.

Generally, we all have to come to terms with the fact that ads power the internet. It’s a reality at this point. And until we start paying for every service, or we drastically rethink ad technology, we’re stuck with it. Maybe I’ll put a love ya in there, too.