Facebook has categorically denied any use of smartphone microphones to tailor advertisements and other forms of marketing. In response to a recent statement by Kelli Burns—a mass communications professor at University of South Florida—the company released a terse, clear statement on June 2.
Burns had noticed some odd coincidences between ads in her Facebook timeline and things she had spoken about in conversations. She conducted a personal test of the Facebook app—leaving the app open and speaking certain keywords in the vicinity of her phone. She alleged that the app then showed her ads that were relevant to the keywords she had used. She spoke about her findings in an interview on a local TV news station.
However anecdotal the evidence, Facebook took the sideways allegation seriously and responded on the same day, releasing a statement on their website rebutting any correlation between the app’s microphone use and targeted marketing.
In a follow up on June 3, Professor Burns qualified her statements, regretting that they have been “blown out of proportion.” She emphasized that she never claimed dogmatically that Facebook is listening to users’ conversations. It was quite possible that the topics she had discussed near her phone were also things that the app had gleaned from her search history. Her original statement was simply an observation that there are incidents where curious coincidences seem to exist between Facebook ads and spoken conversations.
Burns’s claim, however, brought believers out of the woodwork. Dozens of users recounted similar stories on social media—spooky coincidences between private conversations and advertisements appearing on their Facebook timelines.
Technically, it is feasible. Just a few weeks prior to Burn’s statements, Zoe Kleinman, from BBC News, had a similar experience with the search engine on her smartphone that caused her to wonder if the app was listening to her conversations. She challenged cybersecurity experts Ken Munro and David Lodge to investigate the plausibility of a connection between recorded conversations and personalized advertising. Could a smartphone microphone be used to secretly record nearby conversations, transmit the data via wifi or wireless, and then return related ads to the user—without having a noticeable impact on battery life and data consumption?
According to Munro and Lodge, the answer is yes. Within a couple of days, they had created a prototype app that could do just that. But just proving that the capability exists does not incriminate Facebook or any other similar app.
Facebook uses your smartphone’s microphone, and they openly admit it. On their website, the company is explicit about how they use that capability. Similar to apps like SoundHound, if the user desires, Facebook can use the microphone to recognize audio from a user’s surroundings—a TV show, song, movie, etc. If the user wants to make a post or status update about the audio in their surroundings, Facebook can then autofill that information into the post. If a user thinks that feature is too intrusive, they can simply deny the app access to their smartphone’s microphone through the phone settings. The app uses the microphone to be aware of the user’s surroundings, but not to gather or store that information. Facebook clearly states that there is no connection between audio data and marketing targeted at the individual user, and they do not store any audio picked up by that app feature.
The bottom line? Whatever anecdotal evidence that exists could be chalked up to coincidence. When you buy a new car, you may suddenly notice that everyone else seems to have bought the exact same car as you. They didn’t; you are just more aware of the existence of the car that you bought because of a personal connection to it. The same principle may apply to Professor Burns’s incident and others like it: you are more likely to notice things that are related to what is on your mind.
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