It’s a common joke (or sometimes a fear) to “be careful what you say, because Facebook (or Google) is listening to you“. While it may be often intended as a joke, there are many people that think it’s true and there are some decent reasons to believe that it might be. However, I don’t think it is and I have four reasons why.
1. Facebook would get caught
There are literally thousands of people out there that tear apart everything Facebook puts out, trying to catch them in the act of listening — and they’ve found nothing. These are brilliant people, and there has been no evidence of Facebook or Google secretly listening to our conversations.
It comes down to three pieces here:
- People dig deep. As a simple example, here is an ongoing series of posts at XDA where they dig deep into the code for various Android app updates to see what they can find. Other people go much deeper, many want to be able to find bad things against Facebook, and they always come up empty.
- Notification lights. Android and iPhone both have system-level notifications for microphone access. For this to work, Facebook would either need to have found a way to get around that on both operating systems, or they struck super-secret deals with both companies to allow them to surreptitiously listen in on everything.
- Packet sniffing. All data on the internet travels in “packets”, and it’s fairly easy to watch those packets on your network to see where they’re going. By watching (“sniffing”) where the packets are going, you can see when companies are mysteriously sending data from your devices to their servers. People have used this technique to try to catch Facebook, and again have come up with nothing.
2. They’re still not great listeners
Every night before I head up to bed, I tell my Google Home to “turn off my home office lights”. The house is dead quiet, I stand right in front the speaker, speak carefully, and it still gets it wrong once a week or so. The listening skills of these devices is amazingly good, but far from perfect. If this speaker can’t understand one clear intentional statement in a quiet room, I find it hard to believe that Facebook is going to pick up the full story among a bunch of friends in a noisy restaurant to serve perfectly targeted ads the next day.
3. You see 5-10k ads/day
Studies show that you generally see between 5,000 – 10,000 ads every day, and that contributes to this issue. We’re very used to tuning them out, so we generally don’t really notice most of them. That is, until a friend mentions something and the same ad pops up again, but this time you notice it and become alarmed. I attribute that to the Baader-Meinhof effect, as I dug into a few years ago.
(sources: PPC Protect says 6-10k/day, Clario says 5,000+/day, Small Biz Trends says 6,500-11,000/day, and Whoofey says up to 10,000/day)
4. The truth is worse
In that same article about Baader-Meinhof, I also shared an episode of the “Reply All” podcast where they dug into this. While Facebook and Google aren’t literally actively listening, the truth is perhaps more scary because they have a lot of information about you. They know what you purchased recently, what you look at online, and where you’re going. Connecting that with your friends (since they know when you’re together), they can make some pretty good guesses at what you might be interested in.
Privacy is something you should certainly be paying attention to, but I’m convinced that Google and Facebook aren’t listening to you — they’re not willing to risk getting caught, and they don’t really need to listen anyhow. If you want to try to be a bit more secure, my post about the Freedom Phone shows some good places to start (which, ironically, is certainly not with the Freedom Phone itself).
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