It’s a question that has been on everyone’s lips for the best part of the decade. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence talking about the eeriness of seeing an ad that relates to a verbal conversation you had with someone.

is facebook listening graphic

And after years of research the general consensus is this:

Facebook isn’t recording your conversations because they don’t need to.

The reason for that is they (and Amazon, Google et al) are already selling you products and services 24×7. And despite the fact that the Facebook app DOES listen to you on occasions (because you gave it access to) they probably don’t have the resources to secretly send those conversations back to them.

To pull it all off Facebook would need to firstly send the conversations to their servers then they’d need a way to automatically process your recordings to then serve you add. With over a billion mobile users accessing Facebook every day, Facebook simply couldn’t have a human workforce sitting in the background assisting with sifting through the information. Even if they did have the manpower to do it, could they process that much information for less money than the ads? If not, then why would they do it? The only way they could do it is with some kind of computer powered voice recognition system.

Would Facebook do it if they could? Well, they do have  along history of disrespecting the privacy of its users. They have changed everyone’s default privacy settings and notified people about their friend’s purchases on other websites. The Facebook beacon tool triggered a class action that saw them pay $9.5M in a settlement.

Mark Zuckerberg contemplating various household items and services

The evidence for why Facebook isn’t listening in on your conversations

There’s been no leaks.

In the age of whistle-blowers, absolutely no one has come forward even anonymously that this practice is going on. It would also be a huge price to pay (even if just from a PR perspective) if they openly denied that the practice is occurring then only later be found out via a leak.

It’s a tonne of work.

Ever used Siri or Google Assistant’s voice suggestions? Yep, they can be haphazard. That’s because open-ended voice recognition is really hard to pull off and as of 2019 just isn’t good enough yet. If Facebook had perfected the technology they would surely be applying it somewhere else, but they aren’t.

Facebook would also have to violate Apple and Google’s terms of service and find a way to listen in even if the app isn’t open. It would have to be a hidden exploit that they somehow manage to get past both app store’s team of security engineers. Sure it has been done before – Uber spied on users for a long time. Would Facebook risk their reputation by running this listening program and deny it?

Facebook already knows a lot about you.

It’s not just what you’re doing when you’re on Facebook  – they know a lot about you from other websites too. Facebook can even track the behavioral patterns of non-Facebook users. So what you do both on and off of Facebook greatly improves the ad accuracy wherever you are.

Here’s a test – open up your Facebook ad preference then go to “Your information”. Check out the categories that you’re “Interested” in. Also check out your Ad Settings and you can turn things on and off.

If you’ve given location tracking (seriously, why would you check into a location?) Facebook will know where you’ve been, what you buy and where you buy it from. It knows where you have taken pictures, it knows who you talked to every day on Messenger and WhatsApp. It knows who your friends and family are and therefore can connect their information to your information.

What’s the benefit in that? If your brother shops for hiking shoes then goes and visits you, Facebook knows that you two might be going to shop for new hiking shoes soon. So you get served up an ad for hiking boots – the exact ones he was looking at  – right after you have a conversation with your brother… or sometimes, eerily, before you have the conversation.

What else can Facebook predict?

Predicting pregnancy is relatively straight-forward for Facebook. It doesn’t even have to be that you’re suddenly searching for pregnancy based books, recipes or prams. It could be simply that you’re a certain age, in a certain type of relationship and your friends are starting to have children. It’s not just Facebook though, plenty of other companies are keen to know when you’re pregnant – including Target, who track your purchases in the same way.

Facebook’s algorithm can work out plenty of other things about you, as any algorithm can, such as what you’ll want to read, watch or buy next. We’re really quite predictable – the key point is we all think we’re unique and we’re having a hard time accepting it! So it’s much easier to believe that our phones are listening in on our conversations.

What can you do about Facebook knowing so much about you?

Despite everyone acknowledging that Facebook (and Google) know so much about us, people aren’t willing to give them up. We’re handing over all of our personal information and kind of understanding that the transaction is just that.

So firstly, stop using Facebook! Use a private browser like Brave and Duck Duck Go instead of Google. Use ProtonMail instead of Gmail.

Use real-life instead of Facebook.

It’s hard to disconnect once you’re connected, because these apps are designed to keep you addicted.

How to limit Facebook’s access

If you simply can’t disconnect, follow this quick list:

  • Go to your Facebook ad preferences page.
    Toggle everything to “off” or “no” to limit how Facebook customizes ads
  • Install Facebook Disconnect (for Chrome or for Firefox), which stops Facebook from watching what you do on other websites.
  • Revoke microphone and camera access to the Facebook app

On iPhone (iOS 9)

  1. Go to the Settings app
  2. Scroll down to Facebook, tap it
  3. Tap “Settings”
  4. Turn off the slider for Microphone (slider should be grey instead of green)

On Android (Marshmallow)

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Swipe over to “Personal”
  3. Tap “Privacy and safety”
  4. Tap “App permissions”
  5. Tap “Microphone”
  6. Find Facebook, and turn the slider to OFF

Need help making sense of it all?

Having a team of professionals who want to help make your technology safer is a great starting point. There’s plenty of reasons why hiring a Managed IT Service Provider for your IT support requirements. Facebook is just one component of business marketing that needs to be considered in your overall technology strategy. Give us a buzz if you’d like to work with the best MSP in Australia that values relationships over everything else.