Three years ago, on my way to my Brooklyn apartment to cook for myself and a friend, we stopped in a grocery store that offered to build our own six-pack beer. The store had dozens of opportunities for craft beer and cider in weird flavors, from the obscure breweries we had never heard of.
We idly showed some of them to each other, put them back, and got a six-pack Stella Artois. So in my kitchen, rolled through (Facebook-owned) Instagram, yelling my friend and pointing to an ad for a beer she had never tried, never read about, never heard of, never bought, barely held in hand long enough to read label high only once, 1
Of course, the phone listened to her. Yes?
I had mostly forgotten, this happened, until I saw my former chief Verge editor Nilay Patel tweet about how many of these stories he had listened to during the last holiday weekend.
"It is striking that everyone assumes secret listening rather than coincidence – and that the actual targeting data used is probably more scarce than just listening," he noted, before admitted to a reader as he ( or any other reporter can't explain exactly how all this targeting works.
We know that Facebook and Google and Apple have a lot to lose if ever they register through our phones, and although we try not to think about it, most of us know that they have already received more information about us than what could possibly be analyzed or used without accessing our microphones.
Nevertheless, there are multi-year personal "surveys" in the question, and dozens of Reddit threads, and hundreds of news hits: Listen our phones to our conversations on behalf of advertisers? And does Facebook help them?
Not all of these coincidences can be explained – at least not in a way that will make you feel better
Facebook published an official denial of this practice on the company's blog in June 2016, which partly reads: "Facebook do not use your phone's microphone to inform ads or change what you see in the news feed. "Later, Michigan wrote Sen. Gary Peters question to Mark Zuckerberg point-blank, and he said "No" in front of all Congress. (Both are only relevant if Mark Zuckerberg's words matter to you.)
In November, reporters Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt attempted to debunk a whole host of anecdotes about Facebook and Instagram "listen" through users' phones – sent by listeners to their popular internet culture podcast Reply Alle .
They spoke with former Facebook engineer Antonio García Martínez, who more or less launched the ad-targeting department of the company. He especially created Facebook Pixel, which is actually a code number that can be put on almost any site so that Facebook can collect information about what you do there – what things you look at and click, what things you spend time reading , what you almost buy, but don't buy altogether, etc. Martínez had no doubt to explain the murkier ability of Facebook ad targeting, but he refused the company to listen to you.
Then they talked to ProPublica investigative journalist Julia Angwin, who explained that Facebook can simply complement their own data about your online behavior with buyable data about your offline behavior. Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies – such as the now infamous Equifax – have files that include things like your income, your civil status, your legal history, the "square feet of your house within 25 square meters," and so on. These data brokers also manage most loyalty programs in grocery stores and large pharmacy chains, which means they don't need you to pay for credit card items to know what you're buying.
Facebook had more than 52,000 ad targeting categories that users could belong to, Angwin explained, including typical "interest categories" for Adele fans and Nascar enthusiasts, but also sorting people with what decades their home was built into, whether their families drank a lot. iced, and if they thought they could have dissociative identity disorder. "One was just my favorite called," a person who likes to pretend text in difficult situations. "Angwin did not know how the company found this.
But in the aftermath, Goldman and Vogt reviewed the stories of the listeners, explaining how trafficking and social relations and other predictable elements in their personality and shopping history could explain the bizarre advertisements.
Facebook is almost definitely not listened to, but what it does is undoubtedly worse
Antonio García Martínez, the same engineer who spoke about Facebook Pixel at Reply Alle wrote an article last year for Wired which made the technical argument why Facebook would not listen to us through our phones.
Essentially, the collection and storage of data will be too big a task: "Constant sound monitoring will produce about 33 times more data daily than Facebook currently uses , "he wrote. And" such snooping would be very demonstrable, calling up noticeable amounts of data on your smartphone while Facebook up kept your continuous conversation with Zuckerberg. "
The obvious recall here is that voice assistants like Alexa and Siri are always ready to talk to us, which means our devices are always ready to listen. But these assistants must be woken up by a couple of trigger words ("Hi, Siri"), he argues, and it would not be possible for Facebook to listen to "millions or perhaps billions of words and phrases [that] could land you in a Facebook -painting segment. "
More importantly, advertisers are not concerned about the vast majority of even the most personal data – it's just not that useful to know what you are talking about. Especially because knowing the words you say does not really give much insight into what you mean: "Human language is exceeded with sarcasm, innuendo, double entender and pure confusion," wrote Martínez. "To assume that AI on Facebook will be able to figure out even at the flaky level of internet advertising, just what you want for a given statement, these technologies give more credibility (or paranoia) than they deserve."  We are narcissists, he basically argues: We think Facebook needs more than it actually does to find us out. And we believe that marketers really care about our very specific preferences, rather than the broadly broad, socially generated ones that really decide whether to buy any given soda or shirt.
Continue, take Martínez & # 39; s defense with a grain of salt. It makes almost no sense for Facebook to monitor us through our microphones, but the reason why the company will never be thoroughly engaged in the subject is because it would mean explaining how the ad's targeting actually works – which is worse.
Although we do not know everything, we know that Facebook has patented a method of using past data for previous placement data for people you know to predict your future placement. We also know that it holds "shadow profiles" that consist of information that users (or non-users) haven't delivered actively, but can easily be linked to them (your work email address, your loyalty discount cards, your likely acquaintances as you have it is not a friend being asked ") It can also find out if two people know each other by looking at the metadata of images uploaded in a small time frame in a small geographical area, and then comparing scratches and dust on the lens of the camera who took them.
The most valuable information Facebook has about you is not what you like or where you go or what you click on, but who you know. It's always been.
There are apps like is listening through the phone's microphone, but they are not the big ones
Just because Facebook does not listen does not mean that the phone's microphone does not betray you a bit.
In December, the New York Times reported that hundreds of mobile game apps br Weekly software from a startup called Alphonso, which can "detail what people see by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching this information with places people visit and the movies they see. "The information is used for ad targeting, and – a bit strange – to measure the effectiveness of various local TV ads, for things like car dealers.
(If you're over your phone play phase, you may still know that Alphonso has a relationship and data agreement with the popular music identification app Shazam.)
(Also Shazam is owned by Apple.)
This is scary, of course, but not quite the same as recording what you say Christopher Wylie, former Cambridge Analytica employee, As leaked information on how the British firm had manipulated US elections via Facebook user data, the parliament explained in March: "It's not to say that all sound must be someone who speaks. There is sound that can be useful in terms of, are you in an office environment? Are you out there? Are you watching TV? What are you doing right now? "
In a survey conducted last year, researchers at Northeastern University found no evidence that the apps they studied triggered the microphone for no apparent cause or that audio files were transferred from the phones, however, they found images and video transmissions that were screen recording. Another report, published in Wired last year, explained how hundreds of apps use "ultrasound tones" to track where you go in physical space. These apps need access to your microphone, but not to actually listen to you, just to "light up" "sounds in the shops and ads. So … rest easy.
In short: Facebook does not listen, but it does not matter
Of course, I know my friend and I are more predictable than we thought, and which one beer we concerned must have been a subject of curiosity for other people like us.I know 20-year-old women in my neighborhood with my type of social circle and my alcohol budget and my Instagram-honed sensitivity to smart branding ging bought the beer, or at least it looked up. And I know I had provided more than enough information – by signing up for a club card at this store six months before, by growing up in a part of the state known for craft beer production, living with a college friend who was in it "artistic" frat – to allow Facebook to serve my friend that ad without tearing her. But do I really know it?
What is frustrating about this whole conversation is that none of it matters. If Facebook can earn you an ad for a beer you've just had in your hand once in your life, and never met in any other way, it's scary whatever it is. (To add meaninglessness to injury: Advertisers probably don't even have this information, and Facebook's ad serving statistics are probably false.)
None of it will really help, unless we also cut ties with everyone we know and love – our most valuable computer treasures, and the only one who makes Facebook billions of dollars a year.