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Is Facebook Listening to You?

“I was just talking about getting a memory foam mattress. Just talking about it with my friend —and not 10 minutes later, I am getting Facebook ads for the exact thing I was talking about. What’s up with that?”

Have you ever felt like Facebook or another app was listening to you? Is it a coincidence that you are talking with your friend about a certain hotel at the beach and within minutes an ad for the same hotel pops up on your Facebook page? It’s creepy, but is it a coincidence?

Well, maybe, but not for the reason you’re thinking. Facebook and other apps aren’t necessarily following you in real-time, but perhaps in digital time. That is, everything you do is being logged into social media databases, which are able to create a profile on you based on many variables, such as:

  • Sophisticated data

Facebook tracks us in ways that you never even imagined based on sophisticated demographic and geographic location data it has collected on you. It even has an algorithm that assumes you like the same things as your friends. Putting all this circumstantial evidence together (that is eerily accurate) tells just how much they “know” about you. For example, every time you ‘like’ or reply to a post for a recipe, rock concert, song—you name it —Facebook is continuing to build its profile of you.

What’s more, the social network admits that it collects content communications and other information, including photos, videos, accounts, hashtags and groups we belong to. Even worse, it collects payment information, including credit or debit card numbers, billing and shipping information. Facebook can also target you with ads based on data they’ve collected from other websites and apps that use the Facebook plug-in. Additionally, they can supplement their own data by purchasing data about your offline behavior (from consumer reporting agencies) containing your:

    • income,
    • marital status,
    • legal history,
    • even the square footage of your home.
  • Mobile phone microphone data

Facebook doesn’t specifically record conversations from your device’s microphone, but they do listen in on conversations to gain information through background noise so they can target you with relevant ads. At least that’s what a Facebook representative says. So, Facebook and other apps may be listening to us, but are they recording all these conversations? Realistically speaking, experts note that if Facebook were to record your every word, it would overwhelm the system. The sheer size of the data would be amazing. However, Facebook only accesses your microphone if you have given the app your permission and if you’re actively using it. This can be turned on or off your iPhone by going to Settings>Privacy>Microphone. On an Android operating on Oreo 8.0 or higher, go to Settings>Apps & Notifications>Microphones.

The social network tracks us on mobile phones even with the Facebook app closed. It leaves “cookie” data on our devices for tracking. They can also record ambient noise from your microphone to determine where you are, which helps companies target advertisements based on where you are at the moment. Even smartphone games using software from a company called Alphonso takes advantage of your phone’s mic. It can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, then use it to target ads to you.

All this is going on behind the scenes every time you engage with Facebook. Many people are skeptical about their claims to “not” listen in on specific conversations or record such data, despite Facebook assurances. The most valuable information it has about you isn’t what you like, your location or what you click on—it’s who you know.

What you can do
So, is Facebook snooping on you? Maybe. But maybe it’s just using some real sophisticated tracking. For now, the most you can do is adjust your privacy settings on both your mobile phone and Facebook page. Also adjust Ad Tracking, where Facebook gives information to advertisers. On your desktop computer, click the button at the top right of your personal page to access Settings, then look for Ads in the left column. This is where you can opt for “Never” in the sub-categories if you wish. You’ll still see ads but they won’t be as relevant to you.

New “smart firewall” apps are available for your phone. Use them to block Facebook and others from peering into your data. People’s sense of privacy has become more fragile from disclosures by Facebook and many other firms than at any previous point in the history of the internet. And their trust in promises about how their data will be used is very low.

You can also cross your fingers and hope for the best. Or, close down your Facebook page and be out of the loop on what your friends, family and alumni are doing.

Resources: Money, USA Today, Fastcompany.com, Vox.com, TechRepublic, CNet, Wall Street Journal, LifeHacker