Does Facebook Listen to your Conversations to Serve Ads?

Does Facebook eavesdrop on us through the mobile microphone to be able to target advertising?

There are very many who think that this is true based on situations they have experienced. I have also heard this very many times and usually try to explain that it can be impossible.

Advertising on Facebook about what you just talked about

What makes many people believe that Facebook is spying on us through the mobiles’ microphones is that you sometimes talk about something with a friend and then BOOM you get an advertisement for just that on Facebook.

The simplest explanation is usually when you searched for the product or in some way had contact with it online before the call.

Alternatively, you and the person you spoke to are friends on Facebook and that person has checked the product online. But the really scary stories are when someone has talked to someone they are not even friends with on Facebook. And it is the friend who tells about something very specific. And then advertising pops up in the feed for exactly that! Even though you have never searched for the product or even heard of it before.

How is that possible??!

There are actually several explanations.

Facebook knows a lot more about you than you think

Most people know that Facebook knows what we’re looking for. If you have been to an e-shop and looked at (or even bought) a pair of shoes, you will get a lot of advertising about that particular shoe and similar shoes on Facebook immediately after.

This can really make a difference when you are out trying to shop for Christmas gifts online. So use “incognito” or “private” browser windows when looking for presents.

But what you’ve been searching for and surfing is just a tiny bit of everything Facebook knows about you.

You have given Facebook a lot of info – through Facebook

Think about everything you posted or wrote on Facebook. All status updates, all times you “checked in”, all pages you like, people you interacted with. All this collects a lot of data about you that Facebook uses to build its profile about who you are.

Through all the information you have already voluntarily given Facebook, they know, for example: where you live, what you work with, who your friends are, what places you visit, what you like, if you have children, if you are in a relationship, what cell phone you have.

Facebook actually has a page where you can see some of the groups that Facebook has categorized you into and which affect which ads you are exposed to. Look under Your information> Your categories.

Small pixels track you across the web

There is a service that Facebook provides called Facebook Pixel. It is a snippet of code that you as a website owner can place on your website. When you get to the website, this little piece of code gets stuck on you and Facebook (and the website owner) can then see what you are doing on the current website.

It is this feature that allows an e-commerce to advertise an item you have been looking at.
But the information also ends up with Facebook, which now suddenly knows how to move even outside the walls of Facebook…

Artificial intelligence categorizes you based on your data

If you have used Facebook for a long time, you have probably lived large parts of my internet life on or near Facebook. In this case, you can confidently say that Facebook probably knows a lot about you by now.

A lot of data has been collected about myou and all of us over time. To handle this data, artificial intelligence is used, ie computer programs that can load a lot of data, see patterns and categorize you accordingly.

In a TED talk with techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, she talks about the problem with this. Because it’s not just about what ads we get. It is also about what content we are served through the algorithms that control our feeds.
All this information about us can also be used to expose us to political propaganda, which has been discussed enormously since the 2016 US presidential election.

Targeted Advertising – What are you most likely interested in right now?

So the combination of Facebook having all this data about you and artificial intelligence chewing through it to see the patterns becomes quite powerful in advertising.

In the past, advertisements were placed in newspapers and on billboards and those who looked in the newspaper or walked past the billboard saw the message. Even then, it was of course important to capture the right audience and adapt the message accordingly.

But today, you can be almost as specific as you want when it comes to finding exactly the right target audience for your advertising message. If you are selling children’s clothing, you can target: “women aged 27-35 with one or more children who have recently visited the clothing store X website”. If you are going to sell insurance, you can target “singles in self-employed households who live away from their families and work in offices”.

This is also what allows you to get advertising that is so specific that it feels like you have been eavesdropped on. But it’s about the algorithm making assumptions based on your data for what you’re interested in.

But why should not Facebook eavesdrop?

It’s easy to understand why this theory feels plausible. I have just explained things that can make anyone develop serious Facebook paranoia. If Facebook already knows all this about me why would not they also turn on the microphone on my mobile, eavesdrop on my calls, let a computer program analyze and give me advertising based on certain keywords?

If we ignore the fact that Facebook of course says that they do not eavesdrop.  I mean of course they would not admit that they did it if they do now.

Then the fact remains that it would be completely-crazy-bananas risky for Facebook to eavesdrop on its users.

First, they would have a very hard time doing so to any great extent without being detected. Even if we ordinary people would not discover it, your avarage superadvance-data specialist-hacker would soon discover it.

In addition, Americans are very sensitive when it comes to eavesdropping. If you missed all the tours around e.g. NSA and Edward Snowden, I can say: if a large company like Facebook were to be exposed for illegally eavesdropping on its users, it would be thank-and-goodbye.

It would simply be a far too great risk to take for a company that already legally knows a great deal about us that we (more or less) have already voluntarily given them. Why would they take that risk?

One explanation that people have is some kind of legal loophole where functions on our mobiles that listen for trigger words like “Hi Google” or “Hi Siri” create data like Facebook and other apps on could use any way.

So far I have only seen one security expert say this and many journalists and experts still say that it is highly unlikely and that it would be unnecessarily expensive for Facebook to do this when they already know so much about us.

Frequency illusion – can it record?

So, that it feels like Facebook has tapped you is that they (1) have much more information about you than you think and (2) the way they categorize you for ads is very advanced. That you react is simply when Facebook (and Facebook’s artificial intelligence) has done its job a little too well.

Another thing that PJ Vaught and Alex Goldman in the Reply All episode did not talk about is “frequency illusion”.
Do you know when you have learned a new word and suddenly hear it three times the next day? Or when you are thinking of buying a blue down jacket and suddenly see blue down jackets just everywhere?

This phenomenon is usually called frequency illusion and is a type of confirmation bias. That is, when we become more selectively aware of a certain thing.

I think this also plays into the whole Facebook-eavesdropping-on-me theory. If you have not talked to anyone about a pair of red corduroy trousers, you may not think so much about red trousers either. If you then got an ad for red corduroy pants, you might just scroll past it and not think about it anymore.

But if you were just standing and talking to your friend who saw a pair of nice red pants in a store – then you would of course react if an ad for red corduroy pants suddenly appeared on your Facebook, right?

So then it could feel like Facebook must have listened to your conversation. But in fact, it may be logical that you got the ad because many people like you (same age, housing situation, like the same things) bought red pants. Different patterns simply led Facebook’s artificial intelligence to believe that this advertisement was relevant to you.

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