Facebook’s data gathering is not as simple as microphone spying

10 Nov 2017

Is Facebook listening to us? Image: javy_indy/Shutterstock

There have been persistent rumours that Facebook uses our microphones to listen in on conversations.

The theory that Facebook is spying on us using the microphones in our devices is practically ancient in technological history.

Most readers can say they have either heard stories or encountered advertisements that were eerily pertinent to a niche topic they were discussing with a friend – for example, a menstrual pain relief device or Minnie Mouse.

The tech podcast Reply All recently released an entire episode dedicated to finding out whether the giant was indeed using the microphones in our devices to gather nuggets of data about us.

Host PJ Vogt put the question to Twitter and was flooded with anecdotal responses from people who firmly believed the site was listening in.

During the episode, co-host Alex Goldman tried to convince people who believed in the microphone theory that there were other ways the company could have harvested that data, but he was unable to do so.

In response to the episode, in which Facebook flatly denied it uses the microphone for surveillance purposes, Rob Goldman of Facebook spoke out.

Rumours have dogged Facebook for years

Facebook itself addressed this issue last year in a post: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.

“Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.

“We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.”

A convenient theory?

Lifehacker wrote that microphone spying is simply a theory that taps into the dominant narrative of our digital age, which posits that computers are taking over the world.

For Facebook, it isn’t exactly good business practice to flagrantly lie about massive data collection schemes, while also worrying about an annoyed ex-employee leaking such major news.

Lifehacker said: “Facebook’s many other privacy violations and mistakes tend to get leaked, discovered and revealed long before this point.”

Facebook’s voice recognition technology is also nowhere near good enough to effectively target ads for its massive user base, as open-ended voice recognition isn’t quite at that level as of yet. Facebook would also have to violate the terms of service of both Apple and Google.

How are the ads so accurate?

So, how do we then explain the creepy proliferation of advertisements that we see on Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, as well as Google and other tech giants?

Facebook’s data gathering processes are based on the information that us, the users, give to it; our information, our ad preferences, purchasing history, location tracking, family and friend details.

It can connect all of these data pools together to create a detailed profile of a user, and serve them ads that make them feel as though someone is genuinely listening in.

This collection process is not denied by Facebook, but it is in no hurry to discuss the nitty-gritty of how it really gets to know us so well.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects