Tech, Now + Beyond

Is Facebook listening to everything you say?

Ever wonder if someone is listening through the microphone in your phone?

I was having a conversation with my friends about where to eat.

We were driving around the city and talked about the food we were craving at that time and made a long list of places for our dinner that day. Being extra picky when it comes to food, as usual, it took us a while to decide.

Not long after we made a decision, I checked on my Facebook and guess what?

There was an ad about KFC.

Coincidentally, that was the place we picked for our dinner.

So how did that happen?

Apparently, a lot of people believed that Facebook was spying on them, by eavesdropping their conversation through smartphone microphone. I actually believed this and uninstalled Facebook from my phone.

But I wasn’t the only one with this situation. Before this, someone posted a thread in a forum about being spied by Facebook. This person was talking about leasing a Honda Civic with his sister while their phone screen was turned off. He checked his Facebook five minutes later and then BAM! Honda Civic lease ads on Facebook.

Not just him, there were others.

There has been plenty of anecdotes on Twitter, where people shared their experiences and suspicions on Facebook:

Sounds spooky. But is it true that Facebook is spying on us? Most ads seem too ‘precise’ with the users’ topic of conversation to be a coincidence. Now a lot of people still strongly believes that their apps are listening to them, convinced that it wasn’t their search history, liked posts or updating anything about advertised products.

Thank goodness, Facebook’s Vice President of Advertising has confirmed that the theory was false. On October 26, Rob Goldman stated, “I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true.”

There are two explanations as to why this is happening.

We all know this fact – every website track our online activities. We are aware that ads are targeting us when we ‘like’ posts, ‘check-in’ at places, and sharing pictures and videos. Facebook does this mostly by the share button, just like Google does it via its analytic tools. But this doesn’t just apply to Facebook – every website we visited are being detected too.

I still remember when I was looking for earphones and searching for it on online stores for almost the whole day. Being picky as usual, I couldn’t find a pair that really interested me, so I took a break and opened Facebook instead.

Scrolling through Facebook, I realized a new ad about earphones. And it was the exact same brand I browsed not long before that.

But one thing most people don’t know is that targeted ads are also based on their friends’ interests and their online activities. They might do the same thing, went to random websites and reading articles or online shopping. Meanwhile, Facebook will notice their activities and create a new secret profile for them as well as yours – you are interested in the products you’re browsing.

You never searched or browsed about it before, but your friends did.

Facebook’s algorithms, undeniably, are very good at analyzing the data and identifies our interests and activities’ pattern. In a way, Facebook is ‘listening’ to us, but not in a malicious way.

Another explanation for this: the Baader Meinhof phenomenon. Or also known as frequency illusion or recency illusion, but this is merely a theory and hasn’t been proven yet.

We might notice that something has appeared more often than before we mentioned it, in every direction we look at.

We believe a misconception that it occurs after we’ve heard or spoken about a particular thing or topic. But the truth is, all ads that didn’t align with our life went unnoticed and we only did once it has been pinpointed. It’s a part of cognitive bias – we tend to have a way of thinking or assumptions that are strayed from logical facts, thus believing it to be true.

This is how it works – we’ve seen the ad before. It was always there but we ignored it for countless times. We kept scrolling down the Facebook page as the memory slowly diminishing from our mind. And then when we had a conversation with someone about it, suddenly the same ad popped up.

That is when we see the ad for the “first time.”

Although the illusion theory might not be true, it’s very likely to happen to us.

After all, Facebook has already denied the spying allegations so there’s nothing to worry about. Who knows how much they have to lose, with a massive cost of lawsuits if they weren’t being truthful about it.