Why the Rumor That Facebook Is Listening to Your Conversations Won’t Die

Is my social network using my inbuilt mic to spy on me? No, but it sure does feel that way.

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Jul 31 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Shutterstock.

Not long ago I watched a video in my Facebook timeline—I don't remember what it was, only that it was something very sad. Whatever it was, I felt overwhelmed, and I put my head down on the bed beside my computer and did about sixty seconds of crying.

When I lifted my head I saw something new at the top of my timeline: some garbage ad, like any one of thousands of garbage ads that speckle my social media usage with background noise. But this one was worrying: It was for "online counseling services", or something like that. I was alarmed.

Did Facebook hear me crying? No, Facebook has said clearly, but it really felt like it did, which is probably why this rumor won't die.

It's not even that crazy of a conspiracy theory. Two years ago Facebook began experimenting with using your phone and your computer's inbuilt microphone to recognize and predict what you were listening to or watching at the time you made a status update. For example, if you're listening to a certain artist or watching a certain film, rather than typing about it, Facebook would "hear" and identify the source of the sound and supply it for you. When the feature launched in 2014 Facebook promised that the feature was "entirely optional," that it didn't record or store any of the audio it captured, including personal conversations, and that it mainly just uses your audio data to harmlessly note popular matches.

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The feature saw a massive backlash—one online petition against it gained more than 500,000 signatures, according to reports, forcing Facebook to backpedal and clarify. But "backpedal and clarify" is de rigeur for lots of apps and networks that overreach. The same thing happened to pro-social anti-sedition psyop Pokémon Go, which supposedly just had no idea that people wouldn't like allowing Pikachu a totalitarian look into their Google accounts until they had to amend it later. Wow, we're from Silicon Valley and we are wildly educated and make millions of dollars but shucks, understanding this whole "privacy concerns" stuff that arises literally every time we launch something sure is tuff!

Eventually, Facebook denied in plain language that it spies on your microphone to serve you ads. But it took two years after the initial backlash for it to get to that, which seems a little long. And there are still some considerable "ifs" in its official statement after we only access your microphone if. Maybe amid some of those ifs, it spies on your microphone not even for ads, but for some other reason entirely. I just don't trust it.

The truth is out there, says University of South Florida professor and fellow tinfoil-hatter Kelli Burns, who warns that despite the party line that Facebook only listens to certain things for certain reasons, it does appear to adapt based on things you discuss in its earshot. In fact, it seems lots of people have had these anecdotal, eerie experiences—I made one exploratory Tweet, and tons of replies came in reporting similar suspicions. One user was talking to a family member on the phone about another relative's cancer diagnosis, only to find ads for treatment centers. Another was offered a coupon for a restaurant they were chatting about with coworkers.

Maybe I cannot face the fact I am simply dangling in the adept crosshairs of demographic targeting like a motionless red apple. I am easy.

Even if I don't trust Facebook, this whole listening thing is probably not happening. The tech muscle required to continuously capture all that audio and run it through voice recognition systems is supposedly infeasible. With all the metadata it has already to target you with ads—and it's working—why would Facebook or Google need to spend processing power on that scale just to listen to you talking, too?

There are a lot of other logical explanations for these experiences, too. It could be that by the time you think to discuss something with someone, you've probably Googled or chatted online about the same topic, or similar ones, recently—and those in-platform chat logs are often used to suggest ads. There's also a sort of confirmation bias known as the "Frequency Illusion", or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, defined in 2006 as a principle whereby something you heard about recently just suddenly seems to be everywhere. When something new occurs to you, you unconsciously start looking for signs of it in your environment—even, let's say, an event related to a movie you just watched, or a dress branded with a character from a game you just played.

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Maybe I began to suspect Facebook of spying on me, and therefore now I see correlations between my advertisements and my conversations everywhere. Maybe I feel stupid because I've been tricked—I'm an adult and I bought a Pikachu dress!—so now I need to believe the trick is global and massive. Maybe. Maybe I cannot face the fact I am simply dangling in the adept crosshairs of demographic targeting like a motionless red apple. I am easy.

This column of mine, Oracles of the Web, seeks to capture moments of magic, haunting, faith and belief within the technology space. But as they say at dialogue hub Haunted Machines, any system we don't fully understand is fundamentally "magic", or divine, or haunted—that is how the human mind works. I have an idea of how Google and Facebook could be listening to us, following us, but I don't yet know exactly how, where it ends and begins. To test it out once and for all, I have been saying the phrase "motorcycles" into my laptop and phone mic alike all day. I called my partner while he was sitting right next to me to artificially discuss "motorcycles" over the phone. I opened a status window and chanted "motorcycles" softly at it, like a mad prayer. I opened a YouTube tab and murmured "motorcycles" to it, typed and erased "motorcycles" in the search field.

Still, even my most computer-savvy colleagues, those who've been the most dismissive of my paranoia, will eventually admit to switching off microphones and taping up cameras "just to be safe".

I'm not interested in motorcycles at all, so any sign of motorcycle ads on my page would be absolute proof. Yet so far, nothing. Maybe it's onto me and it knows I'm trying to catch it. Maybe it knows enough about me to know I can't afford a motorcycle and my driver's license has lapsed. Who can tell? Without facts, this is just a belief—a paranoid conspiracy theory.

And like all systems of belief, maybe it sprung up in me in response to a subconscious need to believe there is an orderly force behind it all, a definitive map across the great, starlit night that these technology mega conglomerates have stealthily draped over me and my life while I wasn't looking.

Still, even my most computer-savvy colleagues, those who've been the most dismissive of my paranoia, will eventually admit to switching off microphones and taping up cameras "just to be safe". Many sites offered instructions like these for how to shut those microphone permissions off on your phone, so my unease must be popular enough. We may know certain things are unlikely, but it is enough to know they are possible. Mark Zuckerberg himself has sealed his camera and his microphone with tape. He, better than us all, maybe, knows what is possible.