In ten total hours of testimony in front of the Senate and the House this week, Mark Zuckerberg was able to produce only one seemingly straightforward, privacy-protective answer. When Sen. Gary Peters asked Zuckerberg if Facebook listens to users through their cell phone microphones in order to collect information with which to serve them ads, Zuckerberg confidently said, “No.”
What he left out, however, is that Facebook doesn’t listen to users through their phone microphones because it doesn’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.
Users' fear and even paranoia about hyper-targeted ads is warranted—just not for the exact reasons they might think.
Suspicions that Facebook listens to its users’ conversations have been swirling for years, prompting statements of denial from Facebook leadership and former employees. Facebook does request microphone permissions to handle any videos you post, as well as to identify music or TV shows when you use the “Listening to” status feature. But technical investigations have confirmed that you can be confident the Facebook app is not surreptitiously turning on your phone mic and listening in on your conversations.
But how does Facebook know to serve you an ad for a specific product right after you talk about it? What explains seeing ads for things you have never searched for or communicated about online? The list is long. Instead of listening to your conversations through your phone, Facebook:
- tracks you through Like buttons across the web, whether or not you are logged in or even have a Facebook account.
- maintains shadow profiles on people who don’t use Facebook.
- logs Android users' calls and texts.
- absorbs unique phone identifiers through in-app advertising to associate your identity across the different devices you use.
- tracks your location and serves ads based on where you are, where you live, and where you work.
- tracks your in-store purchases to link the ads you see online with the purchases you make offline.
- watches the things you start writing but don’t post to track your self-censorship.
- linked purchases to Messenger accounts to allow sellers to send confirmation messages without affirmative user permission.
- bought and advertised a VPN to track what users are doing on other apps and crush competition.
- manipulated your Newsfeed to see if it can make you sad or happy.
- files patents for emerging tracking technology, like tracking your location through the dust on your phone camera, for potential future use.
Users are onto this. If you have ever been creeped out by an ad for a product popping up right after you were talking out loud about it, your fear and even paranoia are warranted—just not for the exact reasons you might think. No matter how Facebook achieves its frighteningly accurate ads and suggestions, the end result is the same: an uncomfortable, privacy-invasive user experience.
But Zuckerberg’s testimony this week and other recent statements have made it clear that he is not listening to users’ legitimate feedback and concerns here. Putting words into the mouths of millions of users, Zuckerberg said during his testimony that Facebook users prefer a “relevant” ad experience—that is, a highly targeted one:
What we found is that even though some people don’t like ads, people really don’t like ads that aren’t relevant. And while there is some discomfort for sure with using information in making ads more relevant, the overwhelming feedback that we get from our community is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not.
If that were the case, Congress would not have called Facebook’s CEO to testify on privacy concerns. And recent polls confirm that, while some users like targeted ads, the majority of users do not consider targeted ads “better” than traditional forms of advertising, and 63% would like to see less of them.
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.