by Michael Crider on
Trying to find a way to introduce someone to the internet and the digital world when it’s foreign to them (and they don’t like computers) is tough. But you can make that task easier by picking the right hardware.
There’s a persistent rumor that Facebook, using the app on your phone, is covertly listening to everything you say and using the things you say out loud to send you incredibly targeted ads. Facebook may do a lot of shady things, but I have bad new for the conspiracy theorists: it just isn’t true.
For the uninitiated, the story usually goes something like this: You have a conversation in real life where you talk about a product—say, cat food—even though you’ve never talked about it on Facebook or in any messages. Then, a couple days later, you see ads for that thing on Facebook. You’re not the only one, either. Your friend or someone online had that happen, too. It’s too much of a coincidence. It must mean that Facebook is listening and turning your conversations into ads.
That’s not exactly how it works, though. Facebook collects a ton of data about you, so it’s easy to assume the worst. The company also makes a lot of terrible decisions, so it’s not hard to imagine they’d do something this transparently shady. However, in this case, Facebook isn’t being quite as creepy as you think.
To debunk this theory, we can start with the obvious: Facebook has outright denied it. Of course, you don’t have a good reason to take their word for it, but a clear cut denial means it would be even worse for the company if someone were able to prove that they really were listening to everything you say. And it would be very, very easy to prove.
For starters, this entire theory rests on the idea that Facebook can record and analyze everything you say. This simply isn’t possible on your phone directly. Even smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can only scan for certain keywords locally. Once they detect them, they have to send a short audio recording to their company’s servers. If Facebook were listening to your every word, it would be sending a lot of data back home.
If Facebook were streaming audio back home for even 12 hours a day at a very modest 32Kbps (which is close to the minimum necessary to distinguish speech), it would be sending 169MB of data every day. If you’re on a limited data plan, like most carriers have, this would burn through 5GB of your data every month, without including any of the normal stuff you do every day. Moreover, 32kbps is pretty low-quality audio. If Facebook wanted to get 128kbps audio, which would at least be a decent quality for a machine to analyze, the app would use 675MB for twelve hours of recording, or about 20GB of data every month. It’d be hard for even the average person not to notice that. Even if they miss it, the kind of security researchers who look for this stuff for a living would definitely spot it.
That being said, Facebook definitely tracks a lot of information about you. It tracks your web usage even when you’re not on Facebook (unless you turn it off), it scans other people’s photos for your face, and it can log your location when you use Messenger. Just to name a few of the many, many ways Facebook tracks you.
The biggest reason that Facebook isn’t listening to your conversations isn’t because it’s impractical (although it is very impractical). It’s because they don’t need to. Even if you’ve blocked some of the company’s data tracking, they still know a ton about you. You don’t have to post about something online or talk about it in a message for Facebook to know about it.
According to an education portal Facebook put up in 2016, the company tracks at least 98 different data points that range from the inane—like your age or the language you speak—to the eerily specific, like whether you use coupons or if you’re a “heavy” buyer of beer and alcohol. It can be trivially easy to give Facebook this information, too. Did you post about visiting family out of state or complain about the long waits at the airport while you were traveling this holiday season? You might have gotten marked down as a “user who travels frequently, for work or pleasure” in Facebook’s advertising profile.
Facebook can also get that information from third-parties. Companies you’ve never heard of like Epsilon and Acxiom collect the data that you never think about from your offline life, like what you buy with store loyalty cards, or public information like your home or car ownership status. They package up profiles about you and sell them to Facebook. Facebook then adds that to what they already know about you. So, maybe you never talked about your travel on Facebook, but if you used your Delta rewards program when you booked the flight, Facebook might end up knowing about it anyway.
Facebook also probably has some wrong information about you, which can help explain why it advertises things you would definitely never search for. On this page you can explore the interests that Facebook has decided you’re into based on pages you’ve liked or ads you’ve clicked on (this information is shared between Instagram and Facebook, so don’t be surprised if your Instagram obsessions are listed under your Facebook likes). While checking out my own, I looked through the “Sports and Outdoors” category, which I thought would surely be empty. Instead, I found that Facebook thought I was interested in “Martial arts” and “Punch (combat)” which could not be more wrong.
Facebook says I picked up this interest because I “liked a Page related to” these interests. I scoured the list of pages I’ve liked and couldn’t find a single one that had anything to do with martial arts. I did, however, like a page called Rockpunch. Rockpunch is a media company that makes YouTube videos and I have a few friends who work there. I liked their page a while back and never thought twice about it. Yet, because it includes the word “punch” in the name, Facebook has concluded I have interests that are way outside what I actually care about.
Most of us like to think that we’re unique and our whole personality can’t be predicted by an algorithm. Unfortunately, the truth is that most of us really are that predictable. Or, at least, predictable enough to run successful ads in our feeds. In some cases, companies can predict what you’ll want before you even see the connection.
Consider this case from 2012 when Target managed to figure out which of its women customers were probably pregnant. The company analyzed the shopping habits of women who used Target’s baby shower registry and found that certain products or activities could predict whether a woman was pregnant, and even how far along. For example, their research showed that many women switch to unscented lotions and soaps around their second trimester.
This information is, in no uncertain terms, exceptionally creepy. Target eventually pulled back from using this model, since it was invasive and could potentially give away that a woman is pregnant when she might rather the people around her not know. However, other more subtle or less creepy models are used constantly to determine what kind of products you might be interested in.
Once you realize that most shopping habits are predictable, and that Facebook is getting more information than just your Likes, almost all the ads you see start to make sense. People who buy homes, might want shower curtains, lawn mowers, or maid services. Buy a slow cooker and you may also want one of those Instant Pots your friends never shut up about. Buy Mountain Dew, get an ad for Doritos. These connections aren’t impossible to make, and there’s a whole industry built around making them.
Of course, this surely doesn’t explain the truly wacky ads you get, right? Why did you, a 30 year old, get an ad for adult diapers? Why is Facebook trying to sell you dog food when you don’t own a dog? And why are you getting these irrelevant ads right after you talked about them in real life? That must be proof, that Facebook is listening to what you’re saying out loud.
Not really. Contrary to our instinct to find patterns everywhere, coincidences do exist and they don’t always mean something. It’s unlikely that you’d get an ad for a specific board game when you don’t even care about board games, and it’s even more unlikely you’d get that ad right after talking about it in person unless there’s a reason, right? True. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. And given enough chances, unlikely events happen all the time. It’s incredibly unlikely that you will win the lottery, but it’s almost guaranteed that someone will.
Coincidental events can also have non-obvious explanations. Earlier, I mentioned that Facebook thinks I like “martial arts” and “punch (combat)” because I liked a media company page called Rockpunch. Now, imagine that shortly after I liked that page, Facebook started showing me ads for martial arts classes. I’m not going to click on these, and I might not even remember them. Then, some time later, my friend tells me that he signed his kid up for karate classes. The next time I see that ad on Facebook, my mind is blown! How did Facebook know?
The answer is Facebook didn’t. I simply started noticing the poorly-targeted advertising for martial arts ads right after a coincidental conversation with a friend. I only noticed the ads after our conversation thanks to the frequency illusion. And while the whole series of events is unlikely, Facebook is serving ads to two billion people per day. It was bound to happen to someone. I just drew the lucky straw.
All of this isn’t to say that Facebook never does creepy stuff. It totally does. Spying on your conversations is just one very specific thing that Facebook doesn’t do. As with most peeks behind the curtain, the reality is probably scarier than what you thought.
Facebook isn’t listening in on you–and you can tell because your devices aren’t burning through your data–but they are getting information about you from retailers, public records, and third-party agencies, to build an even more comprehensive profile than you realize. If you’re concerned about your privacy, that’s valid, but it’s important to recognize the real problems with Facebook and not waste time on conspiracy theories.
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