I live in Philadelphia and commute to Fort Washington each day. It isn’t a terrible drive (my commute takes me through Chestnut Hill and past Morris Arboretum!) and I pass the time by listening to audio books and podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts, produced by Gimlit Media, is Reply All – a podcast that explains all of the mysteries and answers all of the questions about the internet. The latest episode, Episode 109, asks the question Is Facebook spying on you? Or, more specifically, is the Facebook app accessing the microphone on your smartphone, recording your conversations, and then sending you targeted adds about the things you’ve been talking about?
This is a question I’ve been asked before and one that I have by and large dismissed. It smacks of one of those conspiracy theories that get passed around the internet and causes panic without much truth to back it up. Facebook’s official stance on using the app to “spy” on users (which you can read here) states very clearly that this isn’t something that they do, but what about all of the anecdotal stories that seem to tell another story?
The Reply All podcast, known for getting to the truth of internet matters, decided to investigate. They have been inundated with requests, pleas, and questions about Facebook “spying” from dozens of people – including those who work in the tech sector. They profiled a man named JP, who is convinced Facebook knows a lot more about him than they should.
I was baking pizza dough. I was, you know, making pizza dough, and I said, “This would be a lot easier if we had one of those fancy Kitchenaid mixers.” Ten minutes later, there’s an ad for Kitchenaid mixers on sale.
They also talked to a woman named Monique who had a similar story about coconuts:
Ok, so I have a very quick story, and this is so funny, I was just telling my friend about this last night. Um, so, a few months ago I was on the phone talking to my friend and she was talking about this device that she had bought, um, to help her open coconuts. It was this really weird thing and she was trying to explain–she was explaining this tool, but she couldn’t remember the name. And we get off the phone, and then that was it. And maybe 15, 20 minutes later, I’m scrolling on Facebook and I see an ad for this device called the Coco-Jack.
I screenshot it. And was like “Is this what you were talking about?” And she was like “Yes.” And ever since then, I’ve been convinced that they’re onto me.
The Reply All reporters were skeptical, these were, of course, anecdotal stories and coincidences do happen. But they started to dig. And while they couldn’t find any proof that Facebook is using phone microphones to listen to conversations, they did find a whole lot about what kind of information Facebook DOES track and HOW they track it is a little disturbing.
For instance, did you know that Facebook tracks your internet movement on websites other than Facebook? Or that Facebook sorts every user into categories so that other companies can target ads directly to them? Both of those things are true and Facebook is actually pretty transparent about it, although you have to do a little searching to find out more. If you want to find out about what categories you’ve been sorted into, here’s how you can do it:
My categories aren’t especially surprising and I feel like the majority of the information comes from my Facebook preferences and the devices I use to access Facebook rather than any nefarious data mining by Facebook or its agents. But, even though the information is essentially common, public knowledge, it’s still slightly disturbing to know that that information is used to help Facebook and other companies decide what kind of person I am and what kind of products I could potentially buy.
When the Reply All podcast ended, both their reporters and I were still conflicted. There’s no hard evidence that Facebook is listening and recording our conversations, but plenty of weird stories coupled with such detailed information about who we are and what we do, makes me wonder. I suppose that in this day and age of social media and constant internet access, people and corporations know a lot more about us than they would have in past decades. And they’re finding new ways to gain access to that information that most of us haven’t even begun to consider.
If you’d like to listen to Reply All, you can listen here. (I especially recommend episodes 102 & 103 about phone call scams, episode 97 about email phishing scams, and episode 71 about what happens when the cloud site where you store all of your photos suddenly disappears.)
And if you’d like to know more about how to protect your information on Facebook, Reply All has provided this information sheet to help you navigate security settings and deny the Facebook app access to your microphone.