Something interesting happened to me the other day. I was on a call and the person I was in conversation with, mentioned that there was a bottle of Hennessy on the desk they were on, fast forward and after the conversation, like 10 minutes later, I open up my Instagram and begin scrolling my timeline, disguised as a post (since they do that now), I spot a peculiar ad, a sponsored Hennessy post had shown up on my timeline.
Mind you, I have never searched or even interacted with anything “Hennessy”. This wasn’t the first time I have been served a targeted ad based on a conversation. The other time, I was chatting with my mother on WhatsApp and we were discussing some business that involved car hire, to my surprise, when I opened up Instagram, guess what sponsored post I see? Yup, one about hiring cars from some company I have never heard of.
To add to the creepy factor, I don’t have Facebook installed on my phone, I just use WhatsApp and Instagram, both of which have permission to use my phone’s mic. So, how is Facebook (When I say Facebook, I don’t mean just the social network but all its affiliate apps such as Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) able to show you targeted ads based on your conversations? Through your mic. Based on my personal experience, there are two things going on:
- Facebook is using your phone’s mic to listen in to your conversations and used certain keywords to serve you with relevant ads
- Facebook is also “reading” your conversations on WhatsApp to pick up keywords that it uses to serve you targetted ads.
A quick online research and I realized that reports of Facebook listening in to conversations started surfacing last year, around June. Quite a number of people came out accusing Facebook of showing them targeted ads based on conversations they were having in real-life. This prompted Facebook to release an official statement, denying these reports:
Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order 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 out loud about.
We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.
Well, after this statement was released, someone released a video on YouTube, where he claims Facebook started showing him “cat food” ads after he and his wife had a conversation about buying cat food, here’s the video, which was posted on July 29, 2016:
More than a year later and people are still claiming that Facebook is indeed listening in on their conversations, add me to that list now. On October 26, Rob Goldman, Facebook VP of Ads, said in a tweet that the company does not and has never used people’s mics for ads:
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
If I had not experienced these targeted ads myself, I would probably believe what Facebook is saying because they have more to lose by lying about it, then get caught pants down, than just coming out clean, but experience trumps faith and I now believe that Facebook and its affiliate apps do eavesdrop on their users in order to serve you targeted ads.