Could social media apps be listening in on our personal calls and using the information to serve up ads?
In June 2016, Facebook issued a statement with the headline, “Facebook Does Not Use Your Phone’s Microphone for Ads or News Feed Stories.” At that time, the social media network was embroiled in a controversy. Some people observed that after they talk to friends about certain subjects, ads would pop up on their Facebook pages about the topic they just discussed. They put two and two together and concluded that the social media giant was somehow eavesdropping. That time has passed but is far from forgotten. Years later, it is still a concern that people believe has become more valid than ever.
But is there a reason to worry about this? Do Facebook and its cousin Instagram and other social media smartphone apps secretly listen to our conversations so they can serve us relevant ads?
The Art of Listening
It is not farfetched to suspect Facebook and other social media of eavesdropping on personal calls. The relevant technologies are all in place. Most people install Facebook and other social media apps on their phones. And most people are connected to the Internet 24/7. But they neither know nor bother about what goes on under the hood of their connected devices.
The top social media sites employ some of the best and smartest developers in the world. It is certainly within their capabilities to build eavesdropping features into their apps.
There happens to be a precedent. Alphonso—a software startup—may not have obtained the same stature as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter have, but it successfully pioneered its listening technology. Its listening app comes bundled with hundreds of mostly children’s games, and if you’re not mindful could be installed on your smartphone if your children download these. Alphonso’s app listens in on TV audio signals, analyzes what it finds, and forwards the data to ad providers. The next time you or your children play the game you downloaded, you may see ads related to what Alphonso discovered about your TV viewing habits.
Now think: If they can do that for TV audio, what’s to stop them from doing the same thing with telephone conversations. Or instant messaging. Or email. These technologies are making the world ever more transparent.
Despite all the attention and scrutiny, however, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg absolutely denied that his site eavesdrops on users. When he faced U.S. lawmakers in a congressional hearing in April 2019, the legislators asked him point-blank if Facebook listened to users, then served ads based on their conversations, and Zuckerberg’s reply was a definite no.
Yet, no one seems to believe this despite the lack of hard evidence against the social media site. All there is are anecdotes provided by people who claim that Facebook ads popped with offers startlingly along the same lines as their recent conversations.
All of these seem a bit unfair to Facebook, but it is in large part responsible for how the public perceives it. The social media icon has not exactly been forthright about how it handles user data. And over the past few years, it has been questioned about its commitment to maintaining user privacy. An instance could be its involvement with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. So, suspicions of spying on phone conversations remain an issue that users can’t seem to let go of.
Despite Facebook’s denial and the absence of hard evidence, the danger is real. The technology, skills, and motivation to eavesdrop on private conversations already exist. And as the Alphonso example shows, it has been done. Users should continue to be cautious with their app privacy settings and remain vigilant against possible abuse.
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