Facebook Doesn’t Record Your Conversations, but It Could Be

Last week, the podcast “Reply all” explored the persistent rumors about the fact that Facebook users record conversations and use them to target advertising. Facebook denied this, and co-host Alex Goldman was convinced. But in the second half of the episode, Goldman spoke to people who talked about the product and then saw it pop up in Facebook ads. He provided alternative explanations for their experience. He could not change the mind of a single person. And even if you already agree with Goldman, his complex explanations seem weak compared to the simple explanation that Facebook is always listening.

Rumors of espionage don’t sound crazy. After all, Amazon and Google are clearly selling devices that listen to you 24/7. And the Facebook app sometimes listens to you . So why don’t they secretly record your conversations to serve targeted ads?

The answer, though complex, is that “it’s not worth it.” As we will explain, you should be afraid of what Facebook knows about you. Not because he records your conversations.

Why are there rumors

We all have a story about how we talk about a product and then see it in ads. Digg decided to cover the Reply All episode by cataloging anecdotal tweets like these :

In 2016, a communications professor did a similar trick on local TV, talking about cat food with her phone turned off, then booting up Facebook and seeing an ad for the cat food. The media has been diligent about this story . The Outline has surfaced again this spring. And the Reply All episode sparked another round of coverage .

If Facebook ads appear with the same content as your conversations, it definitely gives the impression that Facebook is listening to your conversations. This theory seems correct because it reflects the dominant narrative of our time: “Computers are taking over.” Just as people throughout history have blamed various gods, witches, or four humors for everything, we blame computers for everything. In this case, we are almost right. We just make a big mistake in the way we think about computers. More on this later.

How Facebook was able to record you

The Facebook mobile app can theoretically eavesdrop on you , at least while it’s open. It even has a public feature that will try to recognize any sound in the background like music or TV, but only when you enter a status update and only if you’ve turned it on. Facebook claims that this feature is never used for Ads.

This requires Facebook to automatically process your speech. The service serves 1.15 billion mobile users every day , so no human team can handle a significant amount of conversation (especially for less money than advertising brings). To do this, they would have to use computerized voice recognition.

But will they do it? Facebook has a history of disrespecting user privacy. In 2010, they changed the default privacy settings for everyone , and in 2007, they notified people of their friends’ purchases on other sites using a tool called the Facebook Beacon, causing a public outcry and ultimately paying a class action lawsuit of 9.5 million. dollars .

And Facebook is secretive about how much information it collects from people. For example, says Gizmodo’s Kasmeer Hill , “Facebook is doing everything it can to underestimate how much data it collects through contacts and how widely it spreads its network.”

Why Facebook isn’t recording you

Nobody leaked it

Facebook has repeatedly denied targeting eavesdropping ads. They denied this after users became concerned about the status update feature. They denied it after the liaison director ploy, they denied it in Outline, they denied it in Reply All. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of Ads and Pages, personally denied this on Twitter .

Facebook is cunning, but they don’t tend to lie openly about huge data collection schemes. It doesn’t make a lot of business sense given the inevitable information leak and the ensuing PR and legal disaster. Former technologists are constantly blowing the whistle . Many other privacy violations and Facebook bugs tend to be leaked, discovered, and disclosed well before this point. And it will be – already is – a huge story. The absence of a leak so far, despite constant media coverage and public interest, is only evidence that there is no leak. Of course, you cannot prove a negative result – you can simply reduce the likelihood of it.

It’s too much work

Even without hiding it from the press, this espionage project will take a tremendous amount of effort. Technologically speaking, as pointed out by Gizmodo, Facebook’s voice recognition is probably not good enough for effective ad targeting. Open voice recognition is tricky. (Just think how much Siri is messing with requests.) If Facebook were to hack it, we’d probably see them use this technology elsewhere as well.

To listen, Facebook will also have to violate Apple and Google’s terms of service and find a way to listen even when the app isn’t open. They will have to hide this giant exploit through the App Store teams of both companies. This has been done before. Uber, for example, has been caught spying on users through its app . But Uber has always played faster and more freely than Facebook. With so much at stake, it would be unreasonable for Facebook to launch this program and publicly deny it for so long.

How Facebook knows everything about you

But if Facebook isn’t listening to us, why is it targeting us so well? Because it collects a lot more about us than most people think, both on the Internet and through the purchase of third-party information.

When constructing our narrative, people forget one important thing about computer algorithms: they work differently than the human brain. What is difficult for us is simple for them, and vice versa.

In the episode “Reply All,” Alex Goldman tries to guess which of the many Facebook data sources led to a particular ad, but he admits it is very difficult to guess. Facebook’s own developers are often unaware of how their algorithm makes these choices. Most people hardly understand the implications of this. They don’t understand how much worse it is than Facebook just listening to us. They don’t understand that Facebook doesn’t need to listen to us, because it already knows what we want and what we need, even before we do it.

Open your Facebook ad preferences . Go to “Your Information” and click on the “Your Categories” tab. Here Facebook gives a tiny sample of what it knows about you: your politics, your activities, when you last left town, what devices you use. Some of this information is completely inaccurate – Facebook thinks I am in “farming, fishing and forestry”, but most of it is correct.

And this, of course, is almost nothing. Chances are, you’ve given Facebook location access, allowing it to track you at all times. If you don’t run ad blockers on all of your devices, Facebook will know where you are on the Internet and what products you are buying or almost buying. (Sometimes he messes with them, so you get ads for the things you just bought.) He knows where you are taking pictures (for Facebook or for Instagram) and who is in them. If you use Messenger or WhatsApp, he knows who you are talking to all day. He knows your friends and family and can link all of their data to all of yours. So, as Goldman explains in Reply All, if your aunt buys perfume but doesn’t buy it and then visits you, Facebook knows you two might be buying perfume soon. Thus, he shows you a perfume ad right after your aunt mentions wanting to have perfume, or sooner. Or, if your brother has been flirting with white supremacy for a while, it gives you a disturbing advertisement for white pride.

For the same reasons, Facebook can probably predict when you will get pregnant – not necessarily from your behavior, but because all of your friends have children . (However, Target is also infamous for figuring out that you are pregnant before you even do so based on your purchases.) He can find long-lost family members, introduce you as gay , define your religion, and policies – and most importantly, anticipate what you want to watch, read, or buy next. The sad news is that you are predictable. We all. We hate to admit this so much that we prefer to believe that our phones are secretly listening to our conversations.

The company even tracks internet users who don’t use Facebook and sells that data to third-party advertisers. It asks users for the phone numbers and email addresses of their friends (which, as Gizmodo explained this morning, allows your therapist, lawyer, long-lost relative or sperm donor to appear in the People You May Know section ). He buys more user information from data brokers, including those that sell credit reports.

Again, Facebook doesn’t deny all this data collection and analysis. He just doesn’t want to talk about it. Maybe it’s simply because the company doesn’t want to pass on its trade secrets to competitors like Google. But they also know that this is all creepy, and that users would be outraged if they really understood how much of their privacy they were sacrificing.

Or are they? Most of the users Goldman talks to think Facebook is spying on them, selling results-based ads, and then lying about it and still using it . It’s horrible! You may feel like you have no choice, like you’re stuck on Facebook, but at least you can fend for yourself.

How to restrict access to Facebook

Reply All summarized are some of the steps that Facebook users can take to minimize access. Here are the best and simplest ones:

  • Go to your Facebook ad preferences page . Toggle everything off or not to restrict the customization of Facebook ads. (If you go through the entire Your Interests section, it may take a few minutes.)
  • Install an ad blocker. On your computer, try Adblock Plus or uBlock . On your phone, try 1Blocker or Purify on iOS and Adblock Browser on Android. They cannot block content on the Facebook app, but they can block Facebook trackers on your regular mobile browser.
  • Install Facebook Disconnect ( for Chrome or Firefox ), which prevents Facebook from tracking your activity on other websites.
  • If it scares you that the Facebook app is taking over your microphone and camera on iOS or Android, revoke the access .

Don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your privacy to take advantage of technology. In the long term, technologies are sustainable only if they can provide both.


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