Is Facebook listening to your conversations? We tested it

Is Facebook listening to you?
Is Facebook listening to you?

Did you ever spend an afternoon talking about a topic with friends only to find ads for that same topic show up later in the day when you’re browsing your Facebook feed?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone and you’re not going crazy.  It happens, but is Facebook really listening in on your conversations?

Is Facebook listening to your conversations?

Facebook says no.

Four years ago, the company came under fire for accusations that it is listening to your conversations, then serving you ads based on those conversations.

“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,” Facebook said. “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.”

If Facebook isn’t listening then who is?

It happens. There’s no doubt about, but Facebook may…or may not be the culprit. Look around your desk.  Right now, in our office, we have an Amazon Alexa device, iPhones, and smart TVs with microphones all around us.  One of them is definitely listening in and giving our team ad recommendations.

So, we did a test.

Each person picked a topic they had no interest in and never browsed the web for or had any interest in.

My pick was “Meatloaf”, the singer.   My test was to talk about Meatloaf and sing Meatloaf songs all afternoon.

Sitting at my desk, belting out the few lyrics I knew to a couple of songs over and over, the trap was set.

Later that night, on Facebook, out of the blue, an ad for Meatloaf’s music popped up.

Another spoke about buying a new bike and was inundated by Walmart bicycle ads from Google Adsense and different outdoor adventure-themed ads on Facebook that would be something of interest to an avid mountain biker.

Most had no ads show up.  We couldn’t figure out a common denominator app or iPhone setting that would have allowed it, but it definitely did happen.

Google also issued a statement that its platform is not listening to your conversations.

The guilty parties eventually showed their faces

We were able to narrow things down to our Google Home and Alexa devices.  They are listening to you.   Amazon openly admits that Alexa is listening to your conversations and engineers use those conversations to better adapt the technology.

How do I stop my devices from listening to me?

If you use each of your voice-activated devices with the default setting, chances are they are listening to you.  You can visit each device’s website and read its terms of service and see if you can opt-out.   The practice is legal as long as the companies don’t abuse or exploit your data.

You can also deny access to your microphone by apps you suspect are spying on you.

Sometimes, the ads might also be just because of your browsing and purchasing history.  For instance, if you are an avid baseball memorabilia fan and you spend the whole day talking about the upcoming baseball season, don’t be shocked if related ads show up.  Many apps partner with different services to get your buying history, so it could just be sending you recommendations based on your past buying habits.

Either way, if it’s something that worries you, you should check each device for best practice security measures.


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