Facebook Isn’t Listening On Your Phone. It Doesn’t Have To


Early this week, a video went viral(20 million views) on TikTok about how Facebook is listening on your phone. The woman in the video claimed she was a former Facebook employee.

The video is part of the viral “tell me something from a place you used to work at” trend.

There has been a ton of rumours of how accurately targeted ads are served on Meta’s apps including Facebook and Instagram. It’s a very controversial phenomenon with people suggesting that they could be listening on their phones.

It’s technically impossible – though it hasn’t stopped tech companies to keep on trying(more on that below).

The amount of data Facebook would have to collect through the microphone from users around the world would be too huge and it would be too detectable to record. Even using targetable keywords to trigger recording is not feasible as that would require a ton of speech-to-text translation and natural language processing.

Scientists researching if smartphones really listen in didn’t find that out. The paper discovered something else – apps recording a phone’s screen and sending that information out to third parties.

“We didn’t see any evidence that people’s conversations are being recorded secretly. What people don’t seem to understand is that there’s a lot of other tracking in daily life that doesn’t involve your phone’s camera or microphone that give a third party just as comprehensive a view of you,” said David Choffnes.

READ: Privacy Changes You Need to Make Right Now

Facebook and other tech companies don’t have to tap into your smartphone when they are other legal and cheaper methods to collect data on you.

Facebook is using FB Pixel and its newsfeed algorithm.

The pixel is a small piece of code that is embedded in nearly every app and website and sends anonymized data to Facebook to aggregate. The data included websites visited, how long you were there and if you decided to buy or not.

The newsfeed algorithm uses that as a signal plus other data points including age, friends, what you clock on and where and when you post to figure out which ad to target you with. However, this is done in aggregated groups – so it’s not specific or personal to you.

You can disable this off-facebook tracking here.

In 2021, eMarketer published a report(paywalled) detailing all the data that’s used to target people with ads, where the data comes from(first-party, second-party and third-party sources) and all the scary data sources tech companies are planning to start mining next.

Tech companies are already working to figure out how to increase the efficiency of pragmatic ad targeting. 14 patents have been filed so far from companies like Sony, AT&T, Nuance, Google, Amazon, Qualcomm, Empire Technologies, Nielsen and Citibank, Cisco, Microsoft, and Apple.

The patents revolve around user conversational/speech data, environmental data to keywords to advertising segments using sniffer algorithms to tack trigger words, identifying sound data and syncing with social networks to figure out a person’s identity, context-aware geo-targeted advertisement in communication sessions, advertising based on customised user dictionary, and public display network for online advertising that matches advertising content to audiences in physical locations.

Most of these patents mention I/O devices such as microphones and audio data as sources.

Small ad tracking companies that are less known are also feeding the advertising industry through untraceable channels with data collected inconspicuously in the background through over-privileged third-party libraries.

This checklist will help you make sure that your device’s security and privacy is in top shape and keep off malware.

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