Rumours that Facebook have been spying on our conversations with their mobile app using the microphone in our phone have been spreading recently.
The rumours claim that Facebook are using this information to help with its targeted advertising business model. I.e. to serve us more relevant ads.
Many of these rumours seem to have come to light after a report surfaced online claimed that a professor name Kelli Burns from the University of South Florida asserted that she tested her theory that Facebook could be spying on her via her phone by talking about going on safari, only to log into the Facebook mobile app to see an advert about safari trips pop up.
Facebook this week denied the claims, asserting that they do not listen to conversations for marketing purposes at all, and ads are based on your account information and web surfing habits.
Facebook’s statement –
Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.
We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.
So, is Facebook telling the truth? How likely is it that Facebook are really spying on us via our phones and lying about it? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Facebook have been caught out telling fibs.
It is worth noting that Professor Kelli Burns since distanced herself from the rumours, asserting that she never claimed Facebook could listen to us, and that the safari advert appearing on her newsfeed may have been merely a coincidence or the result of something else less sinister.
It is true that the Facebook app we install on our smartphones has the ability to listen to the microphone in our phones. You’ll see that permission in the list of permissions granted to the Facebook app. However this is to be expected since the Facebook app has a number of features that would require the microphone, such as the ability to detect and identify songs or recording a video using the Facebook app directly. With these features, you specifically allow the app to listen in to your microphone, and the listening turns off once you’re done with that feature. Apparently.
But is the app constantly spying on us or our phone conversations, even when we don’t activate a feature requiring the phone microphone? At face value at least, it would appear unlikely. Simply put, not only would it be a tremendous risk for Facebook to engage in such nefarious behaviour, but also the game would soon be up as privacy groups would naturally test the theory (beyond Kelli Burns’ isolated experiment) to see if they can catch Facebook out by seeing ads matching their out-loud conversations. And that would soon land Facebook in some seriously hot water.
Or of course we could be wrong and Facebook could be spying on you via their app, and the next time you talk to your buddies about a skiing trip to France, you’ll soon be seeing adverts for ski lodges in the Alps.
What do you think? Let us know.