Is Facebook Secretly Listening to You to Target Ads?

Josh WolfordLife

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Facebook knows you pretty well. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that Facebook knows more about what you like and how much you like it than many of your friends. Think about it. You've been dropping Facebook subtle and not-so-subtle hints for years. You casually "like" Netflix, The Big Lebowski, and AMC Theaters over the years? Facebook knows you like movies. You post every day about diapers, bottles, and naps? Facebook probably knows you have a baby.

At this point, Facebook is really good at serving you ads based on pages you like, statuses you post, and even outside websites you visit. Scary good. If you're unsure about this, then head on over to Amazon. Search for something you want. Check out the product page. Maybe even add it to your cart – but don't buy it. Now, head back to Facebook. You see the ad, right?

Facebook is a company that lives and dies by how much confidence it can instill in the minds of advertisers – confidence that their ads are being targeted to the right people at the right time. Because of this, Facebook is always looking for a better way to serve you ads. When Facebook sees that you just liked Outback Steakhouse, that's a signal equivalent to you saying "I want to eat Outback Steakhouse." When you like Groupon on Facebook, it's your way of telling Facebook "I like hearing about daily deals."

Do you think it's possible that Facebook could be listening to your conversations to target ads? Let us know in the comments.

It's a powerful marketing tool, for sure. Through a series of clicks, Facebook can take a guess at what you like, want, and need. It's likely pretty accurate, for the most part.

What's more accurate, however, is literally hearing someone say it.

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Here's an interesting theory, posed by a redditor:

"I have a crazy conspiracy theory and I'm pretty sure I proved myself correct ... while you're scrolling through photos, Instagram listens in to what you say through your iPhone's microphone to drive targeted advertising through Facebook," says user popular_rhino in a discussion post on reddit's r/technology subreddit.

Here's their story:

I found this out after I saw an ad on Facebook for a club that I had been talking about two hours prior, out loud, to friends in my living room. I thought "well that's a coincidence, what if my phone is listening to me speak." I then remembered that less than 24 hours prior, I had granted Instagram access to my microphone, something I usually have disabled through privacy settings.

I also remembered that I was using Instagram when I had mentioned the club. I went back into my phones privacy settings and immediately disabled Instagram's access to the mic.

So I drew up a test to test my theory- Does Instagram actually listen to my conversation just while scrolling through photos?

I would turn on the mic, mentioning a list of random words that I had wrote down.... Bulldozer, cucumbers, the louvre, Maserati, hiking in the Yukon, African Safari vacation, and a few other random words/terms that had nothing to do with my Facebook interests.

Sure enough, two hours later I was getting ads for Gold Coast Maserati, and African Vacations, also ads for art museums, and climbing.

I did a quick search on Google and reddit to see if anyone else had come to the same conclusion but was unable to come up with anything. Has anyone else experienced this? is it widely known? Do you think I'm nuts?

Nuts? Hardly. Other users quickly chimed in with their own, similar experiences.

From u/SweetPrism:

I'm almost positive this is true. I saw an ad on facebook for Victorian corsets. I mentioned in passing to my friend that I'd like a corset, but not a black and red Hot Topic one, a straight-up old school one. I wasn't on Instagram, I have not done ANY searching online for them, and there are NONE pinned on my Pinterest, even. And I didn't even turn on the mic on my phone. There was no other explanation than the fact that they have the ability to turn the mic on for you. This scares the ever-loving shit out of me, and it wasn't the first time it'd happened, either. It was just one of the examples that stuck in my mind because there was literally no record of me expressing an interest in that item except verbally speaking to a friend

From u/INVALID_STRING_NAME:

So I have been testing this throughout the day using three different phones. I have concluded that Facebook and Instagram are utilizing location tracking and microphone access to provide targeted ads. Each phone I spoke about different things in different rooms, with and without the settings enabled.

Each phone I scrolled through 10 pages. I ensured no background noise interfered and my wife made sure she didn't talk about anything when the settings were enabled.

Phone 1 - I spoke about House of Cards, Australia, Outback Steakhouse and baby toys.

Phone 2 - I spoke about Biking, Hunting, Laptops and video games.

Phone 3 - I spoke about printers, CCNA tests, Harry potter and getting a new bed.

Sure enough a few hours later I would see ads relating to all of these things. We saw an increase in ads relating to Netflix, Cisco routers... Everything. My wife, my brother and I all removed the applications from our phones permanently. This is the scariest thing ever. This can't legal. When we gave these apps access to those things I was under the impression it was being used for videos we'd record and post to Facebook and to Instagram.. Not to target ads to us.

We have been doing our taxes and we spoke about social security numbers and all that stuff. Who knows what the person listening on the other side if there are any is doing with that information.

From u/hummusdingus:

It's not (just) Instagram, it's the Facebook app itself. The Twitter app has started too. I noticed this weird phenomenon about 2 years ago. I thought at first that since Facebook's business model is to be the best-tailored ad machine to you, that it was working as expected, and that it was mere coincidence. But then the coincidences kept happening. The coincidences kept happening after verbal conversations too.

I was talking with a friend about basketball, and then I started getting ads about the NCAA tournament.

I talked to another friend about whether I could ever afford to buy a house, and then 30 minutes later, I started to get ads about home mortgages.

My girlfriend and I were talking about engagement, and then we BOTH started to get ads about engagement rings.

My girlfriend was talking to me about candy. Then we BOTH got the same Twitter sponsored post for Skittles.

I was watching a financial documentary, and then got ads on the Twitter app about financial services. This one was particularly interesting - it's normal to get widespread sponsored posts that have tens of thousands of retweets and favorites. This sponsored ad was from an unheard-of financial services company, that had 10 followers, and the post had 1 favorite.

Again, it really could only have gotten these ad hints from audible conversation, not from the content of my posts or chats. It was very very interesting to me. I've deleted both the Facebook and Twitter apps (as well as my Facebook account) and it hasn't happened again.

Long story short, these people are claiming that Instagram, a Facebook-owned company, and likely Facebook itself, are listening in on their conversations and serving them real-time ads based on said conversations.

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Bottom line: Is this possible?

Well, Facebook and/or Instagram would have to have access to your microphone. Both do, of course, if you've given them permission.

Instagram has been asking users for microphone access for a little under a year – right around the time the company unveiled Instagram video. "Why is Instagram asking for permission to use my phone's microphone?" asks a question on Instagram's help page. Answer: "This permission allows Instagram to use your phone's microphone to capture sound when recording a video."

Facebook – as well as Facebook Messenger – can also request access to your phone or tablet's microphone. You may recall that Facebook found itself in a bit of hot water last summer over a new feature dubbed passive listening. In May of 2014, Facebook announced a new opt-in feature that allows the social network to listen to a user's activity and use what it hears to help identify songs, TV shows, and movies for the purpose of crafting status updates. Basically, you give Facebook access to your microphone, it hears you watching Inglorious Basterds in the background, and automatically crafts a I'm watching Inglorious Basterds status update for you.

This didn't go over very well.

Within hours, a petition demanding Facebook abandon plans for this new feature emerged. It quickly amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures.

“Facebook says the feature will be used for harmless things, like identifying the song or TV show playing in the background, but it actually has the ability to listen to everything — including your private conservations — and store it indefinitely,” read the petition. “Not only is this move just downright creepy, it’s also a massive threat to our privacy. This isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticized for breaching our right to privacy, and it’s hoping this feature will fly under the radar."

Facebook responded, saying it was not always listening.

“The microphone doesn’t turn itself on, it will ask for permission. It’s not always listening…so it’s very limited in what it is sampling,” Facebook Security Infrastructure head Gregg Stefancik said. “I wouldn’t want this in my pocket either if it was recording everything going on around me.”

Facebook elaborated in a "debunking myths" post:

Myth: The feature listens to and stores your conversations.

Fact: Nope, no matter how interesting your conversation, this feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn't listening to or storing your conversations.

Here's how it works: if you choose to turn the feature on, when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can't be reversed into the original audio because they don't contain enough information.

Myth: Facebook is always listening using your microphone.

Fact: Nope, if you choose to turn this feature on, it will only use your microphone (for 15 seconds) when you're actually writing a status update to try and match music and TV.

Facebook clearly has the ability to listen via its own flagship and auxiliary apps, as well as through Instagram – but does it? And if it does, what's it doing with all that data?

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After coming across the aforementioned reddit thread, I became curious. Not that it was a shock to me that Facebook could possibly do something like this – the "listening to your conversations" accusation has been thrown around for quite some time. But the specificity of which these Facebook users described their tests of concept, well, it intrigued me.

So I opened up Facebook on my desktop. I had one sidebar ad – for Blue Apron, a meal delivery service. I don't like Blue Apron on Facebook, and I don't follow them on Instagram. I've never searched for Blue Apron and I most certainly have never visited the company's website. I do post a lot of food photos, however.

Then I remembered something – a brief conversation a friend and I had had on Sunday night about Blue Apron. She'd let me try a chicken pot pie that she'd cooked based on a Blue Apron recipe. We both mentioned the name "Blue Apron" a couple of times, and went about our Oscars-watching.

Now, I had a Facebook ad for it.

Naturally, I told my friend and co-worker Chris Crum about this. We mentioned Blue Apron several times.

Twenty minutes later, Chris had a Facebook ad for Blue Apron. Like me, Chris doesn't like Blue Apron on Facebook, and he doesn't follow them on Instagram. He's never searched for Blue Apron and most certainly has never visited the company's website. Unlike me, Chris rarely posts about food or cooking.

Thinking this was creepy and hilarious, we began to pay closer attention to the ads Facebook was serving us.

Soon, Chris saw a Sprint ad featuring AAA. According to him, he'd been discussing renewing his AAA membership that morning on the way to work.

Then, Chris saw an ad for Cottonelle. Moments later, an ad for Huggies. Chris had explicitly discussed with his wife the need to pick up toilet paper and diapers during his morning commute. To be fair, Facebook probably knows that Chris has a baby at home.

We noticed an ad for JINX.com, a clothing company. We remembered we'd recently discussed the new HBO series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

We noticed an ad for a game called Real Sniper about an hour after discussing the film American Sniper.

In a weekend act of stupidity, I recently shattered my phone. All morning I'd been talking about needing a new phone. Soon we were both hit with multiple Sprint ads, as well as "special offers for AT&T".

At this point, we both decided to have some fun with this. We made sure that Instagram and Facebook were both running on our phones (in the background), and started talking (loudly) about things like travel, wanting to travel, art, art museums, our love of deals, daily deals, amazon, and the need for a new car.

Within the next hour, we both saw multiple automobile ads (Lexus, Mini), as well as multiple travel-related ads (Viator, Norway cruises). Chris saw an ad for Lactaid that was framed in the most bizarre manner. The ad featured several mentions of "travel", with the only logic behind it being that people who travel like to drink hot chocolate and when you drink hot chocolate you should put Lactaid in it.

A half-hour after our loud conversation, I saw an ad for Art.com.

For the next few hours, we both saw suggested posts for Amazon deals.

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So we slept on it. The Blue Apron thing, the AAA thing, and the toilet paper thing were weird, for sure – but many of those other ad subjects were rather generic. Cars, Amazon deal, vacations. These are the types of ads that many see, although they were timed rather perfectly with our conversations.

But how often do 30-year-old men see ads for sanitary pads?

About an hour after getting to the office, Chris saw an ad for overnight leakage protection pads – for children. He mentioned to me that he and his wife had been having a conversation about periods in the car that morning.

Not quite perfect targeting, I said. But kind of close. We mentioned the term "pads" multiple times.

Less than an hour later, Chris had an ad from Poise touting its leakage pads. The ad featured the hashtag #recycleyourperiodpad. Chris is a man. Facebook knows this, for sure. Yet he was now receiving ads for feminine hygiene products.

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Coincidence? Quite possibly. Frequency Illusion? Maybe. Everything here is purely anecdotal.

But one's an incident, two's a coincidence, and three's a pattern, right?

This isn't the first time people have noticed that Facebook has a weird ability to know exactly what you were just talking about. People were complaining about this over a year ago – in Facebook's own community help center.

Here's a story from one user in response to the question "why does the mobile app need access to my microphone or camera w/o my consent?"

"I found this page after I noticed a strange 'suggested page'. It was for a douche bag that was on a TV show that was playing at a friend's house last night. I've never given any indication that I would ever watch this show from any of my posts or other likes on Facebook. The only thing I could think of, was that Facebook picked up the audio from my phone. That's what got me looking at the app's permissions in the first place. While I know that Facebook is the customer here, and if you truly want to have privacy, you shouldn't have a social account of any kind, I still feel violated by the idea that the Facebook app could be listening in."

"Something very similar happened to me today," said another user. "I was talking about belgian waffles with my mother this morning and I know I had my phone next to me. Never googled it or typed it anywhere on my phone or laptop. But then a little while ago I noticed that there was a 'suggested post' about belgian waffles. REALLY creepy."

Facebook is a company that already targets ads, algorithmically, based on keywords. Facebook employs real-time ad targeting. Facebook has access to voice recognition software. We're talking about a company with an entire business model devoted to pleasing advertisers through better targeting and better results. It's constantly making improvements – tweaking its ad offerings to squeeze every little bit it can.

And it just hit 2 million active advertisers.

Once again, this is all anecdotal at this point and a reasonable person could explain it away as coincidence or some admittedly hilarious cognitive bias. But if Facebook were listening to your conversations, via Instagram or any of its other apps, would it really surprise you?

“If someone describes an idea as a ‘crazy conspiracy theory,’ it probably is. This has no basis in fact," a Facebook spokesperson told WebProNews.

Have you experienced anything like this? Let us know in the comments.

Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf