Facebook is eavesdropping on its users, this, according to Professor Kelli Burns, Mass Communication Lecturer at the University of South Florida. Professor Burns and a group of television journalists claimed on May 29,2016, to have carried out a test which shows that Facebook is listening to everything users say and providing ads based on those conservations.
Prof Burns claims that the Facebook app grants itself access to users’ microphone and records everything they say. This data is then used to feature ads which are related to what the users were saying. Facebook spokesperson refuted the claims telling the Independent that the social media giant does not record users for advertising purposes but the businesses are able to serve relevant ads based on people’s interests and other demographic information, not through audio. When the app was launched in 2014 Facebook stated that the phone is not always listening and it never stores raw audio.
Facebook admitted to using subscribers’ microphones to listen to what is happening around the phone, however according to them this is for ‘helping them out only and there is an easy way of turning it off. They claim using audio makes it easier to post whatever is happening around people’s phones, so in other words it is a service to the user. This does not remove the fact though that Facebook is eavesdropping on its users. The fact that people were never told about this casts the whole ‘service’ reason in doubt.
Prof. Burns tested her assertions by talking loudly about her holiday plans with her phone in hand, saying “l’m really interested in going on an African Safari. I think it would be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps”. Less than a minute later, the first story in her Facebook feed was a Safari and a car advert. Facebook seems to know what people were watching on TV and what is turned on the radio. Reports say that people would go to their computers and see the brand of shoes they were talking about earlier with their colleagues or see a link to a special sale that Home Depot is having minutes after hearing about it on radio.
The Belgian police has warned citizens not to react to Facebook posts using reaction icons which were launched in February 2016. The icons allowed users to state whether they are happy, sad and other emotional feelings. Facebook gathers the mood results to assess when to show adverts on their users’ pages. When the user is happy, there is a high probability that they will be more receptive to ads. This is when Facebook will show them a lot of ads which are related to what they have been taking about or surfing the net for.
In the wake of these damning revelations that compromise security of the users, Prof. Burns has backtracked on her earlier claims. She now says that she may have been searching online for the same things she said out loud in which case Facebook may be reacting to other data it picked up on her habits. Prof. Burns spent 7 years in corporate marketing and she teaches a course called ‘Principles of Public Relations’. This background may also have affected her interpretation of the turn of events or maybe Facebook is definitely eavesdropping on its users.
By Tinyiko Chauke
The Register: Shhhh! Facebook is listening
KIMKOMANDO: Facebook listens and records your conversations
INDEPENDENT: Facebook uses people’s phones to listen in on what they are saying, suggests professor
INDEPENDENT: Facebook Reactions: Belgian police warn citizens not to react to posts on social media
Image Courtesy of Francois Proulx’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License