Is Facebook Listening To Our Phones?

words by Joseph | photo by @benlaver_

We all know Zuckerberg is a bit sneaky. As the saying goes, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,’ and we have become quite bloody lucrative. With the core business model for Facebook and other social media platforms being around advertising, it’s easy to see how these companies use (and misuse) our data with so little care. But are they really going as far as using our phones to listen in on our conversations, or are we just putting on our collective tin foil hat here?

I was at the pub last week and one of my mates told us all about a new dating app we had never hear of before. He had just finished building his profile and was talking about how it compared to the more conventional apps and sites. I have to reiterate here that I had absolutely never heard of this company before, yet the next day when I checked my feed, there it was. A bunch of ads for said dating app *cue spooky music*.

Triple J’s recent What’s Up In Your World survey revealed a bunch of interesting facts about millennials, from drug and alcohol use to our insatiable hunger for nudes. Also mentioned was that over half (52%) of those surveyed agreed ‘somewhat’ or ‘completely’ that social media listens to our conversations via our phones.

Of course, social media companies vehemently deny these claims. Experts say that we completely underestimate how much of our other online activity is monitored and analysed to create a picture of our habits, interests, and ultimately what ads we would find relevant.

‘Even if you don’t actually Google something or speak about something, from your thought processes, they can sort of infer what’s on your mind, what’s your state of mind, what you’re thinking about,’ says David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School.

So I guess with that earlier example of the dating app ad, there could be a bunch of other reasons why it showed up for me. It probably didn’t take a detective to realise I was recently single, having drastically dropped off contact with somebody I had previously messaged every day, was in heaps of photos with, and shared countless memes with. If that wasn’t enough, they probably clued in when I re-downloaded Tinder and Bumble at 2am on a Saturday. This new dating app, having only been released fairly recently, was probably in the midst of an aggressive marketing campaign to get a solid user base, and I was very obviously an easy target.

Plus, there’s also the theory of the ‘Frequency Illusion’; basically that once you find out about something you start seeing it everywhere.

But like every other healthy cynic, I’m not convinced. That wasn’t the only time I’ve encountered some suspicious advertising and every time the timing has been way too uncanny. And looking at what has happened in the past- like facial recognition software, Facebook data scandals and Google reading your emails for advertising purposes up until last year- it’s not a stretch to suspect other foul play. Even Zuckerberg himself covers his laptop camera and mic. 

Even if social media platforms like Facebook don’t use our phones to listen to our conversations, it’s obvious that there’s enough of our information out there to cause concern. Businesses will always say that it’s intended to improve user experience- and every time an ad tells me about a genuinely cool gig I tend to agree- but there’s gotta be a line somewhere. Triple J’s data tells me that the majority of young people feel the same way, and that’s a good sign. We are a generation that’s been raised with the internet completely intertwined with our lives, and it’s made things infinitely easier, but we can’t accept things blindly. Stay vigilant.