Have you ever been talking with someone, either face-to-face or over the phone, and they’ve mentioned a product they like, a show they’ve started watching, or a new subscription service they’re trying out? Chances are you have- that’s just a part of everyday conversation. But have you ever been scrolling through Facebook or Instagram after that conversation- maybe minutes or hours later, or perhaps the next day, and had an ad pop up for the exact product or service that you were talking about? The talk of Facebook spying is becoming more frequent and for good reason.
If you have experienced this, you’re not alone. This has happened to millions of people around the world, which has led many to ask the question: Is Facebook listening to my conversations? Is Facebook spying on me?
Tyler Mears: “I Was Targeted With This Ad”
Tyler Mears, a woman living in Wales, has had this exact experience, multiple times. After having a couple of passive conversations- one with her partner and one with some colleagues- she was targeted with an ad. The product in question? A female urination device.
Mears had never looked online for this product or done any kind of research on it, just had a casual, laughing conversation with a few people about it.
She laughed it off, but then it happened again. This time, a colleague had sent her a video of a man attempting to stab a police officer while being arrested. She later showed the video to her partner, and they talked about how lucky he was to have been wearing a stab-proof vest. Later that night as she scrolled through Facebook, she was shocked to find an ad for a stab-proof vest .
Facebook Spying: A Conspiracy Theory?
Suspicions that Facebook and associated apps like Instagram are using our phones’ microphones to listen to our conversations and target ads are not exactly new, Facebook executives have been questioned about this since 2016, and have categorically denied it since the beginning.
In a Senate hearing in 2018, senator Gary Peters asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg point-blank:
“Yes or no, does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about users?”
Zuckerberg, without hesitation, answered with one word: No .
Despite repeated denials, the rumor, which Zuckerberg often refers to as a “conspiracy theory”, has persisted.
CBS This Morning host Gayle King asked Instagram executive Adam Mosseri how an ad for something could appear on her feed when she’s never searched for it, only talked about it in passing with someone else, he said the company doesn’t look at your messages or listen to your microphone, stating that it would be very problematic for a variety of reasons.
“But I recognize you’re not gonna really believe me,” he added .
While it is easy to believe that these big-shot executives are lying to us, the truth is that they probably aren’t. To wiretap, users would be highly illegal and very impractical. Not only would it require storing an unrealistic amount of data, but it would also need software that is sophisticated enough to analyze the minute details of human speech and decipher what is and is not important .
How then, do you explain an ad appearing on your Facebook or Instagram feed for that monthly dog toy subscription that your friend was talking to you about at a party on the weekend?