Alexandre Godreau

Image credit: Alexandre Godreau

It may seem like an urban myth, but plenty of people are convinced that Facebook is listening to them through their smartphone’s microphone.

How else can you explain the endless stories like that of Tom Crewe, a UK-based specialist in online marketing? Crewe was joking with a fellow straggly-whiskered chap about getting beard transplants. “I had my Facebook App open at the time and after a few minutes I started scrolling through the News Feed, only to find a Facebook Ad for hair and beard transplants!” he blogged. A few weeks later, after he was talking about his love of Peperami (apparently it’s a pork sausage snack), up popped an ad for his greasy pleasure.

Or Vice reporter Sam Nichols, who wrote last month about the time, a couple of years ago, when “a friend and I were sitting at a bar, iPhones in pockets, discussing our recent trips in Japan and how we’d like to go back. The very next day, we both received pop-up ads on Facebook about cheap return flights to Tokyo. It seemed like just a spooky coincidence, but then everyone seems to have a story about their smartphone listening to them.”

Or this string of stories, put together by the BBC, of people whose conversations were “overheard” by their smartphone:

  • “My fiancee and I both had wedding ads the day after we got engaged, before we had told anyone”;
  • “We started talking about beds and mattresses and guessing keywords, like slipping ‘California king’ and ‘buy a mattress online’ into the conversation, while intermittently scrolling facebook … two mattress ads in five minutes … none before that conversation”;
  • “I visited a friend who was setting up security cameras at her house … I have never used the internet to look at anything remotely linked to home security, yet less than an hour after discussing how to set up the cameras, I had a Facebook ad for home security cameras … my phone had been in my pocket the whole time”; and
  • “Once, my friend was over and he discussed that he needed Lasik eye surgery … immediately after, I went on Facebook and a Lasik advertisement appeared … I have perfect eyesight, have never searched Lasik ever before.”

Facebook categorically denies that it’s eavesdropping. Earlier this year, a test conducted by CBS News with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found no evidence of audio being transmitted. Nor was there any hard evidence — as distinct from anecdotal — in informal tests by New Statesman.

Crikey engaged security consulting firm HackLabs to run some experiments of our own.

Using freshly wiped smart devices, HackLabs created a bunch of new social media accounts, and spent some time liking various things online, and having keyword-laden conversations in front of them. “Unfortunately we just couldn’t seem to get any sort of correlation. Most of the ads that were targeted to us were very much generic, highly popular items — Kim Kardashian and such topics,” said practice manager Michael McKinnon.

HackLabs also tried to intercept the data traffic to see what information was going back and forth, but failed. “Virtually all of the modern social media apps are basically as secure as your banking app,” McKinnon said.

But as he explains, “there’s a lot going on here in these apps. It’s not just a couple of signals that presumably are being used in the targeting of these types of ads. It’s hundreds if not thousands of signals that are being interpreted in many different ways.”

Targeting techniques used by advertisers are much more sophisticated than showing a Peperami ad to someone who said “Peperami”. As Crikey reported three years ago, it’s possible to target a “fit mom” who buys Froot Loops for her child aged 10 years or younger.

While HackLabs’ experiments were running, McKinnon’s brother-in-law visited him for most of a Saturday evening, along with his two daughters. A week later, that brother-in-law complained that he’d been bombarded with online adverts for the video game Fortnite. “The only connection or place he’s ever been exposed to Fortnite, the latest craze game for teens, is at my house with my two boys that play this game incessantly,” McKinnon said.

EFF has concluded that while Facebook may not listen to you through your phone, they don’t have to. “Facebook actually uses even more invasive, invisible surveillance and analysis methods, which give it enough information about you to produce uncanny advertisements all the same,” they wrote.

“Zuckerberg condescendingly called the idea that Facebook is listening in via phone mics a ‘conspiracy theory’. But users are confused because Facebook has so far refused to be more up-front about how the company collects and analyzes their information. This lack of transparency about what is really going on behind the Facebook curtain is what can lead users to jump to technically inaccurate — but emotionally on-point — explanations for creepy ad phenomena.”

After all, notes CBS News, “Google has access to 70 per cent of the credit and debit card transactions in the US.” Who needs to eavesdrop when you have that kind of data available.

Users are also sceptical of the denials — understandably so, given the hints Facebook gives about its future plans.

Only last month, Facebook took out patents on the process of triggering your smartphone by broadcasting a hidden signal over TV. As Metro reported, a “machine recognisable” set of Morse-code-style sounds could order your phone to begin recording an “ambient audio fingerprint”. According to the patent, that’s the “distinct and subtle sounds of a particular location created by the environment of the location, such as machinery noise, the sound of distant human movement and speech, creaks from thermal contraction, and air conditioning and plumbing noises in a household.”

A patent is just an idea, of course, not finished technology, and patents are sometimes intended to block a competitor from using the idea. But it’s clear that analysing audio is very much on Facebook’s mind.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey