Is Facebook eavesdropping on your conversations?

Camryn Whitman

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For the past few years, Facebook has faced allegations of using the microphone on iPhones to eavesdrop on the conversations of their users, and uses this information to display ads pertaining to what they were talking about. The reasoning behind these claims come from people who say they received ads for a certain product soon after talking to someone about it.

One Facebook user, Nate, claims the day after he got engaged he and his fiance both saw multiple wedding ads on the app, despite insisting they had never searched anything about weddings on Facebook.

When Facebook is downloaded on your phone, a notification pops up asking for permission to use the microphone. Most people click “yes” without thinking. However, in retrospect, many wonder why a social media app needs access to a microphone.

Tech consultant Damian Le Nouaille claims Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is listening to his conversations in multiple different languages, showing him ads in English after speaking in English, and likewise in French and Spanish. Many believe the facts these ads surface just minutes after a conversation on the same topic is too much to be a coincidence. This leads them to one conclusion: Facebook is spying on us through our phones

Despite a multitude of current and former Facebook users bombarding them with these claims, Facebook has relentlessly denied these allegations, saying, “Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations 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 about out loud.” Facebook’s vice president of ads, Ron Goldman, tweeted, “I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t- and have never- used your microphone for ads. Just not true.”

So if Facebook is not listening to our conversations, how do you explain these ads? One theory is people are experiencing a form of cognitive bias (A tendency to think in a certain way), called Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This  means something we’ve heard about recently occurs more often than normal in our perception, simply because it is more present in our mind. David Hand, a mathematics professor at the Imperial College London, spoke on the theory, saying, “If you take something that has a tiny chance of occurring and give it enough opportunities to occur, it inevitably will happen.”

Many Facebook users have and will continue to insist Facebook is listening in on their conversations to personalize ads. Facebook, however, claims that they simply use data gathered from users’ profiles to engineer ads. We scroll through hundreds of ads in a day, is it possible we just notice what is more present in our minds, as Professor Hand suggests, or is Facebook using microphones to store our most private conversations?

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