You may have seen the headlines before: “Is Facebook Secretly Listening to Your Conversations?” The answer is no—as far as you trust Facebook. It’s just that many people don’t.
Questions about Facebook’s use of microphones on users’ phones have popped up in media at least since last year. They were primarily based on anecdotal accounts. Somebody said something with a phone around or talked about something on the phone and, soon enough, Facebook or Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) showed an ad based on the keywords from the conversation.
Many of such stories are all the more convincing by involving products otherwise irrelevant to the people involved.
One couple, for example, experimented by talking about cat food around a phone for a few hours. They didn’t have a cat and it was a subject they had never talked about or searched online.
“Two days later, our Facebook advertising completely changed over to cat food for a few days,” the man wrote in a description of a Youtube video they made to document the experiment.
He wrote they also tested other keywords and saw the same results every time.
Facebook has denied the use of eavesdropping for advertising purposes.
“Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads,” the company said in a statement last year. “This is not true.”
“We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio,” it stated.
But the denial did little to convince the throngs already convinced otherwise.
PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman of “Reply All” podcast have dived into the issue in their Nov. 2 episode.
Goldman talked to a man with multiple stories of conversations creepily turning into online ads. He also talked to a Facebook representative, a former Facebook developer of ad targeting (Antonio Garcia Martinez), ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin, and others.
What he learned convinced him Facebook ad targeting is invasive enough even without eavesdropping. Facebook not only monitors what users do on its site, but also tracks their behavior on other websites, and also gathers information about its users from other companies.
Goldman figured Facebook ad targeting could be so sophisticated, it may seem like it’s listening, even though it isn’t.
He asked on Twitter for people who believe Facebook eavesdrops on them to call in. He said he’d convince at least one of the callers that Facebook is not listening to them.
He couldn’t convince any of the five callers.
Goldman’s tweet earned a response from Rob Goldman (no relation), ads vice president at Facebook.
“I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true,” he said.
I run ads product at Facebook. We don't – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true.
— Rob Goldman (@robjective) October 26, 2017
That also includes Instagram, he confirmed in a later response.
Facebook and Instagram spokesman Adam Isserlis also chimed in, suggesting it’s the users’ own brains playing tricks on them (due to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon). Specifically, that people start to notice, based on the topics of their conversations, ads that they would have otherwise overlooked.
Yet his explanation was utterly unconvincing to the scores who replied to the thread, many sharing their own experiences with conversation topics eerily seeping into advertisements.
One possible explanation would be that it is not Facebook who listens, but another app or a service provider who then provides the data to Facebook.
The Epoch Times asked Facebook if it’s possible it has received third-party data based on conversations recorded through cellphone microphones.
“Nothing new to add beyond our  post explaining that we do not listen to people’s conversations in order to show them ads,” replied Facebook spokeswoman Rochelle Nadhiri.
For users concerned about intrusive advertising data collection, there are ways to mitigate it.
One can, for example, deny Facebook and other apps access to one’s cellphone microphone (for iPhone the controls are in the Settings’ Privacy category and then under the Microphone option).
One can also, to a degree, control what information Facebook uses to target ads by going to one’s profile, then Settings, and then to the Ads category.
The Digital Advertising Alliance offers a mobile app that “gives you transparency with more than 30 participating companies (and counting), and lets you limit their collection of cross-app data for interest-based ads.”
Facebook also provides a list of its third-party data providers together with links to websites that explain how to opt out of one’s data being used or shared for targeted advertising by each company.
Still, these options only limit, not stop companies from collecting and using one’s personal data.