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Facebook Isn’t Recording Your Conversations, But It May as Well Be

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Last week, the podcast Reply All investigated the persistent rumor that Facebook records users’ conversations and uses them to target ads. Facebook denied it, and co-host Alex Goldman was convinced. But for the second half of the episode, Goldman talked to people who have talked about a product, then seen it pop up in Facebook ads. He presented alternate explanations for their experience. He couldn’t change a single person’s mind. And even if you already agree with Goldman, his complicated explanations sound weak against the simple explanation that Facebook is always listening.

The spying rumor doesn’t seem crazy. After all, Amazon and Google explicitly sell devices that listen to you 24/7. And Facebook’s app sometimes does listen to you. So why wouldn’t they secretly record your conversations to serve targeted ads?

The answer, while complicated, boils down to “because it’s not worth it.” As we’ll explain, you should be scared of what Facebook knows about you. Just not because it’s recording your conversations.

Why the Rumor Persists

In 2016, a comms professor performed a similar trick on local TV, talking about cat food with her phone out, then loading Facebook and seeing cat food ads. News media ran hard with the story. This spring, the Outline surfaced it again. And Reply All’s episode fueled another round of coverage.

If Facebook ads pop up with the same content as your conversations, it definitely feels like Facebook listened to your conversations. This theory feels true because it taps into the dominant narrative of our age: “Computers are taking over.” Just as people throughout history blamed everything on various gods or witches or the four humors, we blame everything on computers. In this case, we’re almost right. We’re just making a big mistake in how we think about computers. More on that later.

How Facebook Could Record You

Facebook’s mobile app theoretically could listen in on you, at least while you have it open. It even has a public feature that will try to recognize any audio in the background, like music or TV—but only while you’re entering a status update, and only if you’ve opted in. Facebook says this feature is never used for advertising.

To pull this off, Facebook would need to automatically process your speech. The service has 1.15 billion mobile users every day, so no human team could process a meaningful amount of conversation (especially for less money than the ads make). To do this, they’d have to use computerized voice recognition.


But would they do it? Facebook does have a history of disrespecting users’ privacy. In 2010 they changed everyone’s default privacy settings, and in 2007 they notified people about their friends’ purchases on other sites with a tool called Facebook Beacon, triggering public outcry and eventually paying a $9.5 million class action settlement.


And Facebook is cagey about how much information it collects from people. For example, says Gizmodo’s Kasmir Hill, “Facebook does what it can to underplay how much data it gathers through contacts, and how widely it casts its net.”

Why Facebook Isn’t Recording You

No one’s leaked it

Facebook has repeatedly denied that it targets ads based on overheard audio. They denied it after users worried about the status-update feature. They denied it after the comms director’s trick, they denied it to the Outline, they denied it to Reply All. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of product for ads and pages, personally denied it on Twitter.

Facebook is cagey, but they don’t tend to openly lie about huge data-collection schemes. It doesn’t make great business sense, given the inevitability of a leak and the ensuing PR and legal disaster. Ex-employees in tech blow the whistle all the time. Facebook’s many other privacy violations and mistakes tend to get leaked, discovered, and revealed long before this point. And this one would be—already is—a huge story. The absence of a leak so far, in the face of constant media coverage and public interest, is a bit of evidence that there’s nothing to leak. Of course, you can’t prove a negative—you can just push down its probability.

It’s too much work

Even without hiding it from the press, this spying project would take a massive effort. Technologically, as Gizmodo has pointed out, Facebook’s voice recognition probably isn’t good enough to effectively target ads. Open-ended voice recognition is hard. (Just think of how much Siri messes up requests.) If Facebook had cracked it, we’d probably see them using the technology elsewhere, too.

To listen in, Facebook would also have to violate Apple and Google’s terms of service, and find a way to listen even when the app wasn’t open. They’d have to sneak this gigantic exploit past both companies’ App Store teams. It’s been done before. Uber, for example, was caught spying on users through its app. But Uber has always played more fast and loose than Facebook. With so much at stake, it would be uncharacteristically foolhardy for Facebook to run this program and publicly deny it for so long.

How Facebook Knows All About You

But if Facebook isn’t listening to us, how is it targeting us so well? Because it’s gathering way more about us than most people realize, both online, and by buying outside information.

In building our narrative, humans forget one big thing about computer algorithms: They don’t work like human brains. What’s complicated to us is simple to them, and vice versa.

In the Reply All episode, Alex Goldman tries to guess which of Facebook’s many data sources led to certain ads, but as he admits, it’s very hard to guess this. Facebook’s own developers often don’t know how their algorithm makes certain choices. Most people barely grasp the implications of this. They don’t understand how this is scarier than if Facebook simply listened to us. They don’t understand that Facebook doesn’t need to listen to us—because it already knows what we want and need, before we do.

Open up your Facebook ad preferences. Go to “Your information” and click the “Your categories” tab. Here Facebook lists a tiny sample of what it knows about you: your politics, your line of work, when you last left town, what devices you use. Some of this information is wildly inaccurate—Facebook thinks I’m in “Farming, Fishing, and Forestry”—but most of it is right.

And of course this is barely anything. You’ve very likely given Facebook location access, letting it track you at all times. Unless you run ad blockers on all your devices, Facebook knows where you go on the internet, and what products you buy or almost buy. (Sometimes it screws those up, which is why you get ads for things you just bought.) It knows where you take your pictures (for Facebook or for Instagram), and who’s in them. If you use Messenger or WhatsApp, it knows who you talk to all day. It knows your friends and family, and it can connect all their data with all of yours. So as Goldman explains on Reply All, if your aunt shops for perfume but doesn’t buy any, and then she visits you, Facebook knows you two might be shopping for perfume soon. So it shows you a perfume ad right after your aunt mentions wanting perfume—or before. Or if your brother flirts with white supremacy for a season, it gives you disturbing white-pride ads.

For similar reasons, Facebook can probably predict when you’ll get pregnant—not necessarily by divining your behavior, but by noticing all your friends have kids. (For what it’s worth, Target is also notorious for figuring out that you’re pregnant even before you do, based on your purchases.) It can find long-lost family members, out you as gay, identify your religion and politics—and, most importantly to its bottom line, predict what you’ll want to watch, read, or buy next. The sad news is, you’re predictable. We all are. We hate to admit it, so much that we’d rather believe our phones are secretly listening to our conversations.

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

Again, Facebook doesn’t deny all this data collection and analysis. It just really doesn’t want to talk about it. Maybe that’s just because the company doesn’t want to hand over its trade secrets to competitors like Google. But it’s also that they know that this stuff is creepy, and that users would revolt if they really understood how much of their privacy they’d sacrificed.

Or would they? Most of the users Goldman talks to, who think Facebook is spying on them, selling ads based on the results, then lying about it, still use it. That’s terrifying! You might feel like you have no choice, like you’re stuck with Facebook, but you can at least stand up for yourself.

How to Limit Facebook’s Access

Reply All compiled some steps Facebook’s users can take to minimize its access. Here are the best, and easiest:

Go to your Facebook ad preferences page. Toggle everything to “off” or “no” to limit how Facebook customizes ads. (If you go through the entire “Your interests” section, this might take several 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. These can’t block content on the Facebook app, but they can block Facebook’s trackers on your usual mobile browser.

Install Facebook Disconnect (for Chrome or for Firefox), which stops Facebook from watching what you do on other websites.

If you’re paranoid about Facebook’s app hijacking your microphone and camera in iOS or Android, revoke access.

Don’t assume that you have to sacrifice your privacy in order to enjoy the advantages of technology. In the long run, tech is only sustainable if it can deliver both.



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