Facebook is at the center of serious controversy, which is nothing new. Many users of this social media platform have a reason to believe that their private conversations are being tracked and used to display targeted pop-up ads on their feeds.
Think about it for a moment: have you ever had a chat with someone with your phone close by and mentioned a certain product only to later see ads for that same product on Instagram or Facebook?
Chances are that you have, and this goes to prove that Facebook may have upped its spying game. A lot of people are actually quite concerned about this.
So, if you have had this experience, you are not crazy. Facebook is being accused of listening to private conversations.
A Woman Was Targeted On Numerous Occasions
A woman from Wales, Tyler Mears, recalls having this unsettling experience on many occasions. On the first occasion, she had a particular conversation with her partner and then with her colleagues.
Afterwards, she got an ad about a female urination device.
The funny thing is that she had never searched for the product online. All she did was have a lighthearted talk about it.
Later, a friend sent her a video of a man trying to stab a policeman during an arrest. However, the man did not succeed as the officer had a stab-proof vest.
She also showed the video to her partner only to see an ad for a stab-proof vest on her Facebook page later that day.
Is Facebook Spying Real?
For some time, there have been rumors that Facebook and Instagram have been using the microphones on our phones to listen in on our conversations and use the information to show us targeted ads.
The social media giant has been in denial of these claims since 2016, but evidence on the ground does not support this stand.
At one point during a senate hearing in 2018, senator Gary Peters asked Mark Zuckerberg about it:
"Yes or no, does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about users?"
The controversial Facebook CEO said no. However, that has not put the matter to rest, and many people still believe that Facebook spies on its users.
Gayle King, the host of CBS This Morning also talked about having a conversation about something in passing and later seeing a related ad on her feed. She asked Instagram head Adam Mosseri if the company listens to people's microphones but he denied it while also saying this:
"But I recognize you're not gonna really believe me."
Mr Mosseri also explained that doing so would have a lot of problems for a number of reasons.
Are They Lying?
It is quite easy to believe that these high-flying corporate leaders are lying, but it's also possible they aren't.
For starters, wiretapping users would not only be illegal but also very impractical.
For instance, storing that amount of data would be quite unrealistic. Additionally, having software that could analyze all these conversation details to decide what's important and what's irrelevant would not be easy.
However, if that's truly the case, why do things people talk about show up on their social media feeds?
How Facebook Targeted Ads Work
Although Facebook is not listening to private conversations, the company has pretty advanced data collection methods. That is why its ad targeting is so accurate that it makes people think they are being spied on:
"They actually have ways of coming to know things about you that we don't fully understand yet."
This was clarified by Same Lavigne, an artist who looks at how technology and society interact.
Facebook has gone to the trouble of explaining to its users why they see certain ads. That is why they introduced the "why you're seeing this ad" feature.
You can access it using the three dots at the top right-hand corner of the Facebook ads menu. For instance, if the ad was targeted at women over 25 living in New York, you might get the ad if you qualify.
Similarly, if you interact with a friend who has clicked on the ad, they might show you the ad as well. The interaction could be anything as simple as updating your status saying that the two of you were together.
All this happens pretty fast, which is why the ads might appear in your feeds soon afterward and make it seem like you are being spied on.
The algorithms the company uses can also process visual and textual data to determine personal interests. This is according to tech industry expert Phil Lieberman:
"With intent, they can find products and services that you might be interested in. This is all about 'recommender systems' similar to what Amazon offers, but FB has more information on an ongoing basis to determine what you might be interested in buying."
Although Facebook Isn't Listening, It's Tracking
Your interactions with Facebook are being tracked. That means whenever you like or comment, you are giving the platform the information it needs to display targeted ads on your profile.
In fact, the company does not deny the fact that it collects data about its users. This information includes the pages you follow, the photos and videos you like, and the groups you have joined.
The shocking reality is that Facebook can even track what you do on sites that have Facebook plugins, widgets, or logins. That means whenever you use Facebook to sign in to websites or apps, you give the company a lot of data about yourself.
The site can also track you even when you have closed the app if at some point you had said yes to "Turn on Location Services" request.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
On the Facebook's Ad Preferences section, you can choose the kind of information you want advertisers to see when they look at your profile. They will still get your data, but a lot less.
However, this does not save you from seeing ads based on gender, location, or age.
Additionally, you can click on "Manage Settings" and set the location tracking option to "Never." However, they might still get information about your location using chek-ins, events and even information about your internet connection.
Facebook Is Not The Only Offender
It is not just Facebook that tracks users to ensure they get targeted ads. Gaming apps like "Pool 3D" also track people's information to give them targeted ads.
These games use a software called Alphonso. The software uses your microphone to find out what you are watching in addition to identifying the ads showing on your TV.
The software, purportedly, does not record human speech. Fortunately, you can opt-out of this feature at any time.
Is There A Way Out?
The simple fact is that Facebook is spying on you, just not by listening in on your everyday conversations. As long as you continue to use social media, you will continue giving your data to these tech companies.
However, you can do a few things to limit how much personal information you give to them. Unfortunately, you cannot stop the process entirely and still use the platform.
If you don't want social media platforms to collect any information about you, your best option is to quit social media entirely. Otherwise, you should get comfortable with the fact that your data is always being collected as long as you are on Facebook or Instagram.