Here’s a crazy theory: Facebook is secretly listening to people’s conversations when the app is closed. It picks up certain keywords from those private discussions, such as “cat food,” “camping gear,” and “perfume” to show relevant ads once the person browses through Facebook again.
Facebook ‘Listening’ Theory Gets Traction Again
It’s a totally crazy and unlikely theory but not impossible. There’s a real fear of smart devices spying on its owners. Why? Consumer technology has advanced to a point where they can surreptitiously record everything with their built-in microphones and cameras without the user ever knowing it’s occurring.
In terms of technical plausibility, spying is entirely within the realm of what devices are capable of doing. They have the components to do so, and while their manufacturers ensure security, they can still be vulnerable to breaches, attacks, and hacking. With a combination of bad intentions, shady behavior, and hacking know-how, a person can be spied on through their device. It’s not even a debate on possibility anymore — it’s become debate on ethics.
As with Google, Facebook earns its revenue mainly from advertising. To do this, Facebook fights to get people’s attention. That’s why the typical newsfeed looks very different now. Before, there was a healthy combination of text-based posts, videos that didn’t autoplay, and other types of content. Now, videos are autoplaying, ads are everywhere, clickbait links appear consistently, and there are expanded options to be engaged — finer-grain “like” and “love” options being an example. This is how Facebook determines what a user likes, and therefore, it determines the correct ads that must be served to them.
Is Facebook Spying On Its Users?
But what if Facebook doesn’t have people’s attention? Is Facebook resorting to spying on people’s private conversation to refine its ad targeting practice?
As AdAge points out, it’s an urban legend that simply won’t go away, even if Facebook’s advertising VP outright denies such claims.
“I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t — and have never — used your microphone for ads. Just not true,” said Rob Goldman on Twitter. It was a direct response to Reply All podcast host PJ Vogt, who, as part of an episode, asked his followers if they believe Facebook is recording their conversations.
“Hi, Rob. I don’t believe that facebook is listening, but a number of our listeners called yesterday with stories that are hard to dismiss,” Alex Goldman, one of Reply All’s creators, told the Facebook executive in the same thread.
Facebook secretly listening to conversations has been a longtime theory, but it wasn’t until an old YouTube video apparently demonstrating the practice was posted to Reddit that the urban legend became such a huge controversy. The video was of a man pretending to talk to his wife about cat food as his phone “listened.” Lo and behold: the video jumps to a Facebook feed, in which a cat food ad appears.
The video wasn’t an airtight proof supporting the claims, but a great number of Redditors chimed in and claimed the same thing happened to them.
Facebook Isn’t Listening To You In Secret
So is Facebook doing what people claim it’s doing? Probably not. Here’s why: If Facebook had the ability to target ads based on keywords picked up from real-world conversations, it would charge a lot of money for that.
“Facebook would be selling that to advertisers at a much higher premium price if they could, otherwise they would have no reason to do it,” said Baker Lambert, global director for TBWA Worldwide. “And they’re not selling it to advertisers.”
Still, the fear of devices secretly listening is real, especially as voice command gadgets such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other smart home devices are continuously being pushed into mainstream. People will likely be more afraid of technology recording their every move.