Is Facebook listening to conversations through your phone? It’s a controversy that has reared it’s head every so often over the past couple years - most recently with an episode of Reply All. But with nearly a decade of experience working at every level of social media marketing, I think I can help answer this question…
The short answer is “no.” The slightly longer answer is “no, because they don’t need to.”
This social network’s ad targeting methods have been under plenty of scrutiny over the years - from huge investigative pieces about how “private” your private information is, to the platform’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
One thing has remained consistent through all of these reports and congressional hearings. Facebook’s response has always been non-existent or rather simple without any explanation whatsoever.
That’s especially true of accusations that Facebook listens to your conversations, using your smartphone’s microphone. A theory that has made the rounds since Facebook launched a feature that listened for “ambient noise” when posting a status, enabling you to tag whatever song or TV show is in the background at that time.
Following PJ Vogt’s tweet, calling out for anybody who believes Facebook used their microphone for ad targeting, VP of Facebook ads, Rob Goldman, responded with a flat out “no.” This was swiftly followed by a whole lot of responses from Facebook & Instagram users, who (summing up the tweets) did not believe him.
And I understand all of your doubts - I truly do. While the company will always vehemently deny using your phone’s microphone to listen in on conversations and target you with relevant ads, they are extremely reserved in telling you how their targeting metrics actually work.
That leads to the skepticism and distrust that many of you feel. According to New Rising Media’s own survey, 93% of you do not trust Facebook. So the question remains - are these videos a true representation of what's going on? Is the social network spying through your smartphone's microphone?
The Tech Specs
Many websites have already gone into how it is technically impossible for Facebook to spy on you through the microphone, so I will be brief. If you want a more in-depth analysis, I recommend you check out Wired.
But put simply, Facebook would need to process 20 petabytes of data per day if it were to record the audio of around 150 million daily active users in America. Currently, Facebook’s entire data store is roughly 300 petabytes and ingests 600 terabytes of information daily.
For this to be possible, they’d need to have the capability to crunch the numbers on 33 times more data than it currently does - and they will need a whole lot more storage.
Plus, this is only American we’re talking about. With a further billion users out there, it’s just impossible.
From the position of a social media marketer
As some of you may know, my past employment experience includes working in social media marketing, one job being for a large retail company through which I formed a direct relationship with Facebook.
I even had the pleasure of going along to their London offices - packed to the gills with everything you expect from a millennial working space including a Mario Kart projector break room and a wall made entirely out of Lego for you to build on (phenomenally jealous of this).
But cool offices aside, it gave me an entirely different perspective on the targeting opportunities available to me through the social network. Not only does it have the wealth of information that you entered when signing up for the account, posts with a variety of marketable options like check-ins and your internet usage (courtesy of Facebook pixel tracking your activity across the vast majority of the web), but also databases bought by Facebook themselves from companies such as Experian - giving them further insight into your income, house value, loyalty card usage, offline store purchases and much much more.
This gives them the ability to draw an extremely accurate picture about you and market products relevant to you - be it through specific targeting or because your friend likes said product and the company wants to spread the word through your friend’s circle.
Being on the inside of this system, you become blind to the creepiness of it. To some degree, every newly introduced targeting metric excited me to use. However, stepping away from that world and conducting research of my own purely from the point of view from a blogger has been eye-opening.
Attempting to debunk Reply All’s call-ins
If you haven’t listened to the most recent episode, or have never heard of Reply All before, it comes with a huge recommendation from me. Every episode either takes you on a fascinating journey, opens your mind to a topic with fierce investigation or gives you a strong case of chuckling in public while walking to work. Go listen now.
For those of you who have, let’s dive into JP’s Perfume story about his partner’s Mother, Debbie, visiting them in San Francisco from Oklahoma. After getting her perfume confiscated by the TSA (Transport Security Administration), she talked to the couple about wanting to buy a new bottle from a perfume store. Shortly after, JP’s partner (her son) had a Facebook ad for a women’s perfume store in San Francisco.
Alex Goldman got into the nitty gritty of this story, speaking to the creator of Facebook’s rather scarily invasive levels of ad targeting methods and their tracking pixel, to see just how they could have served this ad.
Following this, he went back to JP and explained how Facebook’s location tracking noticed his partner’s mother was in the same place as her son, picked out this perfume from her purchase history and delivered the ad. An explanation which JP was not convinced by.
And to this, I have some follow-up questions, to help provide a different answer:
- Was the perfume store one of a chain of stores that she uses?
- Does she have a loyalty card at this store?
- Was there a day of celebration coming up soon? (Her birthday, Mother’s Day, etc)
If these answers all come back as “yes,” then it becomes clearer to see this is a coincidence of specific ad placement.
This story was quite the callback to one Valentines Day ad campaign with the targeting metrics of 21-35 y/o men in relationships with women who had purchased particular brands of perfume within the last 3-6 months.
Next up, the co-worker’s cough drops. After speaking to a co-worker in the office about a brand of cough drops, the guy who called in was served a Facebook ad for them, with the caveat that they were not Facebook friends during this time.
This one puzzled me for a bit, but same as above, here are some more questions:
- Do they both have employment information updated on their profiles?
- When did this happen? I.E. did this cough drop incident happen
Office water cooler talk like this is great for spreading brand awareness, and it’s easy to move people towards transaction with some cleverly placed ads - targeted at businesses with a worker who has bought your product within a contextually relevant timeframe (cold & flu season).
I know it seems rather redundant to ask these after the fact, and chances are they were asked but cut out of the actual podcast to keep it less repetitive for the listener.
However, if there were to be any follow-up episode where Alex and PJ retread this ground of uncertainty, this is where I would start.
Three random questions
And now, for a contradiction of my own. While I’ve been working hard to disprove that Facebook has an ear into your conversations, I do actually have a story of my own - about a recent interaction with the Amazon Echo.
My previous landlord, Federico, had one set up in the shared kitchen that he mostly used for playing music and adding items to his shopping list. In one situation, he requested the theatre soundtrack of Disney’s The Lion King. Shortly after, within the 15-20 minute window that every skeptical consumer seems to see, he was sent a targeted ad for cheap west end ticket to see this very play via Amazon Tickets.
With that in mind, and the knowledge above, I have two questions.
- Does Amazon use Facebook pixel?
- Is the Echo feeding data to said pixel in some way?
I don’t work off assumptions (I have reached out to them for comment), but if this were to be true, it’s the closest we’re getting to confirmation that Facebook listens to you. Which leads to one final question.
Could voice assistants be used by Facebook and the tracking pixel - turning the Echo into the conversation-analysing machine that many people accuse them of possessing?
For now, the simplest answer is not always right
I heard a saying once: “If you hear hoof steps, think horses. Not Zebras.”
This is in reference to the common occurrence that the simplest answer to a problem turns out to be the right one. And with that in mind, I get why people would be suspicious of Facebook listening in on your conversations.
But I do also know of a term Facebook uses - Social Serendipity. This is the idea of a spontaneous conversation, friend discovery through ‘people you may know,’ or many other features of the network. It recreates that feeling of pure coincidence through a meticulous algorithm that quickly establishes your degrees of separation and brings it altogether.
And that word, while it’s one that can be quickly used to excuse any accusation of spying, could also be used as part of a phrase to define what is going on here.
Coincidence. Social coincidence - a coincidence artificially manufactured using a wealth of information provided by you to Facebook and bought from many mines of data from across the globe.
I am the Founder and Editor-in-chief of New Rising Media. You can follow me on Twitter @MrJasonEngland.