You just got off the phone with your cousin. She called to ask what you want for your birthday, and you said, “I gotta have a swing arm mid-century modern table lamp.” Now you’re on Facebook, and holy $%*#, there’s an ad for mid-century modern table lamps right there in your news feed.
Wait… Is Facebook listening to your phone calls?
“Let me be clear on this,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress last year. “You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads. We don’t do that.”
Okay, Mark, but it seems like a heck of a coincidence. If Facebook isn’t listening, then how — HOW — does it know you really, really want that table lamp?
Take a deep breath. Relax. I’m here to quell your fears.
Facebook Conspiracy Theory
First, this conspiracy theory, as Zuckerberg called it, has been debunked by security experts time and time again. In fact, the team at CNET recently conducted a test where they discussed various topics (like chainsaw sculptures and skydiving lessons) in front of their phones and then monitored Facebook to see what ads came up in their feed.
“We found nothing to suggest Facebook had overheard our conversations,” they said.
Former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez wrote in Wired there are two reasons why Facebook does not listen to your phone calls. One, it would be far too complicated to do so.
“To make it happen, Facebook would need to record everything your phone hears while it’s on. This is functionally equivalent to an always-on phone call from you to Facebook,” Martinez wrote. “Such snooping would be eminently detectable, ringing up noticeable amounts of data on your smartphone.”
The second reason?
Facebook doesn’t have to eavesdrop. It can gather your data in hundreds of other ways.
Like I said, I’m sort of here to quell your fears.
The Facts Behind Those Ads
Fact is, everything you do online is being tracked: your browsing history, your location, your purchase history, and your searches. “With those four things alone, you can find out an amazing amount about somebody,” Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of private search engine DuckDuckGo says.
Weinberg told CNET that tech giants “can get more from the current tracking infrastructure than from listening to your conversations.”
The CNET team didn’t see any hardware ads after they talked about chainsaw brands. And they didn’t see any ads about skydiving. However, two of the eight participants in their informal study did report getting ads for Casper or Purple after they had a conversation about beds and box springs.
“It turned out,” CNET said, “the reporter getting the Casper ad had visited a medical website after a backache caused by a poor night’s sleep. The reporter who got the Purple ad had been receiving ads from the mattress maker before the test started. (The ads) simply continued.”
So, bottom line, Facebook is gathering information about you from pretty much every single action you take on the Internet. But they are most certainly not listening to your phone calls.
Who can say?