There’s something about a conspiracy theory that seems to hook people in a way that’s more attractive and long-lasting than any ordinary rumour. Maybe it’s how it usually involves governments or major corporations, or maybe we’re just too used to seeing Hollywood movies packed with action and subterfuge and so we jump onboard any chance of finding this in the real world.
Either way, the latest conspiracy theory surrounding Facebook looks like it’s going to be one that hangs around for a few years yet.
Chances are you’ve got your own opinion on whether Facebook is listening into your day to day conversations through the microphone in your phone. I’ve heard countless stories from family and friends who say they were talking about a product with someone and then saw an ad for that product at some point within the next few days.
At first it makes sense for Facebook to be listening to its users. The more relevant Facebook can make its ads, the more likely people are to click on those ads, and the more likely it then is for online marketers to spend money on Facebook. But as you dive into the logistics of how Facebook might be pulling off the mother of all privacy breaches it becomes clear that really, with what Facebook already knows about our lives, it wouldn’t be worth the risk of getting caught spying on more than two billion people all at once.
Why is the rumour sticking around?
Facebook listening in on our conversations can seem a little farfetched until you start to realise how much spying on us Facebook has already admitted to doing.
The social media giant may or may not be listening to us, but just this year Facebook admitted that the company “scans them (Messenger conversations) and uses the same tools to prevent abuse there that it does on the social network more generally”.
And that’s not all Facebook’s been snooping around in when it comes to your personal data. The social media giant keeps track of many of your interests and hobbies through a variety of means online – both on and off Facebook. This involves buying user information from data brokers and consolidating it in one place for digital marketers to use. While Facebook has been phasing out data collection practices such as this, it still has all its previously collected information stored away. Go to ‘your information’, then ‘your categories’ to see just a few of the categories you’re a part of in Facebook’s servers.
Perhaps Facebook’s most worrying information system, although probably its most well-known, is location tracking. Users have the option to check-in at restaurants, bars and other events that they visit, but in doing so give up their location to Facebook – which can then track them at all times.
Are we just going crazy?
It’s a fair question. It seems insane to be living in a world where a company that started out of the bedroom of a Harvard student as a crude Hot or Not site is now able to know what you want as soon as you want it (and sometimes even before you know you want it).
And this may just be the case.
Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? If you haven’t yet, you might start hearing about it soon.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a ‘frequency illusion’ where the thing you’ve just noticed, experienced or been told about starts regularly popping up around you. Ever been interested in a certain type of car, and all of a sudden you start seeing the car everywhere? The reality is that you’re not seeing more of the car around, you’re just noticing it more than you were.
This could be an explanation for why Facebook ads seem so specific to us. There are plenty of ads that we scroll past each day, and for every ultra-relevant ad there’s another ten that miss the mark. Who’s to say that we’re not just remembering the relevant ads and forgetting the irrelevant ones?
But even taking this into account, there’s some more logic-driven arguments for why Facebook probably isn’t recording us.
Why aren’t they recording us?
First and foremost, there haven’t been any leaks.
Facebook has denied time and time again that it uses overheard audio to improve targeted ads. The scale of this questioning culminated with CEO Mark Zuckerberg being directly asked by American Senator Gary Peters whether Facebook listens to its users through the phone’s microphone. Zuckerberg replied with a simple ‘no’.
With roughly 25,000 employees in its ranks, it’s hard to see how a flat-out refusal like this could be a lie. Whistle-blowers are aplenty in the tech industry, and Facebook itself has had its own troubles with leaks in the past. It’s difficult to see how something on the scale of constant audio surveillance would fail to make it to the media’s ears.
Aside from leaks, the logistics of how much sheer data would be involved in a mass listening surveillance operation shows one of the biggest flaws in the theory. A voice call over the internet takes roughly 24kbps. If you only have your phone on for half the day, that’s still about 1040mb of data – per person, every day. There are 15 million daily Facebook users in Australia – that equates to Facebook collecting a ridiculous 15 petabytes every day, just in Australia!
To put that in perspective, Facebook’s entire daily ingestion rate is about 600 terabytes, meaning that if Facebook is listening in – it would take about 25 times more data daily than it currently consumes, just to listen to Australians. It’s hard to imagine that this much extra work and money spent on managing data would pay off for Facebook.
Besides, how good would the listening be anyway?
Siri’s come a long way since she was first introduced to the iPhone in 2011, but sometimes it can still feel like you’re trying to hold a conversation with a poorly-trained parrot when you ask for her help.
While newer products such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are certainly an improvement, they only listen for keywords – a listening device for Facebook would need to be accurately capturing entire conversations, idioms, sarcasm and all, for there to be any use in it.
One Final Note
After some investigation, it becomes clear that constant audio surveillance would be too risky, difficult and demanding for Facebook to get any true value out of it. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Facebook is listening to our conversations, the truth is likely a much more boring combination of third-party data collection and our minds playing tricks on us.
In saying this, as far as conspiracy theories go, this is certainly a healthy story for the world to obsess over. From the Snowden whistle-blowing to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the world is becoming more intrusive and subversive with every new Terms and Conditions that comes our way.
If you’re not sure how worried you should be about your privacy, it might pay to take a hint from Zuckerberg himself – if he covers his webcam and headphone jack with tape, maybe we should too!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Williamson is the Company Director of Digital Marketing Adelaide. He keeps busy doing what he enjoys most – talking. He has a passion for social media and all things digital marketing.
Matt is an internet entrepreneur, social media expert, multiple business owner and digital marketer who specialises in assisting businesses to generate more revenue via the power of online advertising and digital marketing. Matt regularly speaks at events as a keynote speaker focusing on digital marketing & social media.
View Matt’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewdjwilliamson
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