Facebook May Be Listening In On Your Phone Conversations, So Privacy Is Dead

by Eitan Levine

*Calmly picks up cell phone. Walks over to window. Opens up window. Whispers into phone, “Go f*ck yourself, Zuckerberg.” Chucks phone out of window.*

At one point, the concept of living in a “big brother”-esque society was something that only happened in futuristic sci-fi movies.

The idea of having shadowy councils of government members and corporate leaders throwing around the full weight of their powers to spy on a population they've sworn to protect was something that could only happen in scripts with massive Hollywood budgets and Guy Fawkes masks.

Lately though, the line between fiction and reality when it comes to unwanted monitoring has not just been blurred, it's been completely erased. Thanks to entities like WikiLeaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, we are now at least aware of government abuses of power when it comes to spying on the public.

We can't really do much about it, but hey, knowing is half the battle (right?).

Those are legal agencies, though. Without getting into a longer debate about homeland security vs. privacy rights, we can all agree they take our metadata without our knowledge and oftentimes without our permission.

What about companies we willingly give our information to? For instance, Google isn't really stealing our data to sell to marketers, it just uses search and email history that we put into its website to figure out what we like.

I get this is a massive grey area, but it all leads to the fact we need to figure out an ethical data-milling bar we should be holding these companies to, and I think I know where we can put that bar.

Might I suggest that bar be set at Facebook not flat-out listening to our conversations we hold offline? Because the site has been doing that, and it's creepy as f*ck.

This isn't exactly private information, but a little while back, Facebook admitted to using your phone's microphone to listen in on what was happening around you. Facebook explains on the website, saying,

We'll only use your microphone to identify the things you're listening to or watching based on the music and TV matches we're able to identify.

Kelli Burns, mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, claims there's a good chance Facebook's spy-like audio software is being used for more than the company originally claimed.

Burns claims Facebook could also be using audio picked up with your cell phone's microphone and milling it for buzzwords in order to target posts and advertisements.

In a report for NBC, she seemingly proved her theory by mentioning into the phone's microphone the idea of taking a safari only to have targeted posts about safaris show up on her News Feed a minute later.

Facebook is denying these claims, telling reporters at The Independent,

Facebook does not use microphone audio to inform advertising or News Feed stories in any way.

I actually tested this theory in our office by speaking into my phone twice in order to get these targeted Facebook posts to come up.

The first time I talked about something I have zero history with.

The second time I talked about something I absolutely despise but have friends who like.

Both times my News Feed did not change.

I have zero idea if the claims by Burns are accurate, BUT if you're interested in stopping potential Facebook audio data mining, you can shut down your microphone.

Here's an easy guide from The Register:

iOS: Settings > Facebook > Settings > Microphone. Android: Settings > Privacy and emergency > App permissions. Find Facebook and turn off mic access.

Long story short, I'm on to you, Zuck. I'm on to you.

Citations: Facebook uses peoples phones to listen to what they say professor suggests (The Independent)