Elisa Werbler was at dinner with a friend earlier this month, iPhone out on the table, having a relaxed conversation about a range of topics, including, well, blackhead removal.
“I know, that’s kind of gross,” Werbler, a 29-year-old New Yorker, later recalled with a sheepish laugh — but what happened next compelled her to tell the story anyway: A few hours later, scrolling through her Facebook feed, she saw an advertisement for a blackhead removal tool. And then she noticed that her phone’s microphone was enabled for Facebook’s messenger app.
It was not the first instance of an ad she considered more than coincidental appearing on her Facebook feed, but this time, she was sure that she had only spoken about blackheads, not Googled the topic. “There have been other instances where I was like, ‘Oh, that was weird but I probably searched for it,’” Werbler told The Outline. “This time, I did not.”
Werbler strongly suspects that her phone’s microphone eavesdropped on her conversation. She is one of many people to have experienced this anxiety — you have probably heard tales like this, or felt it yourself. A viral story last May even prompted Facebook to officially deny the charge. But despite the company’s attempt to shoot down the idea that it eavesdrops, suspicion persists. And this is itself telling about our anxiety regarding online privacy, a topic that few of us have taken the time to adequately understand.
Kelli Burns, an associate professor of mass communications at the University of South Florida, was inadvertently responsible for Facebook’s denial last year, when a local TV reporter interviewed her about online privacy and advertising. Burns conducted an on-camera experiment, holding her phone while saying, “I’m really interested in going on an African safari. I think it’d be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps.”
“We don’t fully understand the extent to which they have access to information about us...”
Less than a minute later, a post about safaris, along with a car ad, appeared on the top of her feed. The TV station presented this as hard evidence of Facebook’s eavesdropping, but Burns thought it was not nearly scientific or comprehensive enough to prove anything. She didn’t know what exactly did happen, but conducted the experiment in a lighthearted manner, and couldn’t say for sure that she hadn’t searched for these topics before.
Still, the story was soon everywhere, with blaring headlines like “Facebook is using smartphones to listen to what people say, professor suggests.”
The company responded with a statement that read, “Facebook does not use microphone audio to inform advertising or News Feed stories in any way. Businesses are able to serve relevant ads based on people’s interests and other demographic information, but not through audio collection.”
A Facebook spokesperson told The Outline last week that the statement still applied, and added the new assertion, relevant to Werbler’s case, that it also “applies to ads in all Facebook apps and services,” including messenger, Instagram and Whatsapp.
The company says that the only time it listens to users is when they select a feature that uses the phone’s mic to identify a song, movie, or TV show that is playing in the background, which can then be added to the user’s status. This feature is optional, and does not result in Facebook listening to or storing conversations, the company says.
Burns accepts this explanation, but still thinks there is plenty of room for questions about how Facebook monitors and advertises to people.
“I will say that I believe what Facebook said, and I believe that their statement is accurate, and that they’re not hiding anything from us,” Burns told The Outline. “But at the same time, I have heard from a lot of people who have very strange stories to share about how they said something, and it was only said one time, and they never Googled it, and there was never any online search related to this topic. And yet they saw a Facebook ad related to that.”
There have long been online chatter online about Facebook’s alleged eavesdropping. “Add mine to the tally of documented cases of Facebook listening through your phone's microphone, one Reddit user posted last year, in one of many such conversations on the website about this topic. “After a random and unexpected conversation about pressure-washers, my wife's Facebook account the next day contained ads for pressure-washers.” Facebook forums have also been a site for the airing of these concerns, like this story in which a user played the card game Uno with his daughter, said he never Googled it, and soon began seeing ads for the game.
“I think we don’t fully understand the extent to which they have access to information about us, that behind the scenes they may be leaking information that we have provided, or maybe even that our friends have provided,” Burns said.
She shared another experience that illustrates this gray area. She and her husband were in a friends’ kitchen not long ago, discussing cooking techniques for steak. The next day, her husband saw an ad on his Facebook page for one of the techniques that they talked about.
“We were like, that’s weird, we didn’t Google it, we only talked about it,” Burns said. “What we don’t know is, did we have a friend there who maybe did Google it? And maybe my husband is connected to that friend on Facebook, so I thought, if that friend Googled it and thought he was interested, maybe that friend might be interested, too.”
Facebook itself, beyond its blanket denial of eavesdropping, did not elaborate on how something like this could happen. A company spokesperson did not specifically respond to an email question asking for possible explanations for Werbler’s experience with the blackhead removal ad — if Facebook wasn’t listening to her conversation, how then did it know to advertise that product? It remains unclear, because the company did not offer an explanation.
What we do know is that Facebook utilizes many advanced techniques to determine how best to advertise to its users. One such method, called online interest-based advertising, means that the company monitors people’s general web habits. According to Facebook’s site, “Online interest-based advertising means deciding which ads you might like to see based on your activity on websites and apps off of Facebook.”
As of last May, Facebook even tracks the internet usage of people who visit Facebook pages but don’t have an account, in order to help advertisers target a wider range of potential customers. And according to ProPublica, the company keeps detailed dossiers of its users that includes information about their offline lives.
With all these programs, which are difficult to fully understand even for someone devoted to researching them, it is no wonder that people feel paranoid that Facebook is listening. Facebook has violated users’ sense of privacy in the past — a case about whether the fact that tagging someone in a photo adds them to Facebook’s database constitutes a violation is ongoing — and the fact that other companies have been busted for eavesdropping makes it pretty reasonable to wonder if the social network is doing the same.
As Burns puts it, “I think we don’t understand all the information that a company like Facebook is compiling about us, and how they are using it.”