No, What Facebook Hears On Your Phone Isn’t Triggering Ads

Facebook says conversations aren't recorded or stored by audio discovery feature that suggests music and TV clips using ambient sound; Issue is getting renewed attention after Redditor was creeped out by ad he believes was trigged by a discussion about a cockroach killing.

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Is Facebook listening through your phone to target you with ads? No. But it is listening sometimes for other reasons, and that is causing confusion with some that the “audio discovery” feature could be being used for ad targeting.

At issue is an optional feature of Facebook’s mobile apps that enables people to share clips of the music they are listening to or the TV shows they are watching. It works by turning on your microphone when you start tapping out a status update, tuning into ambient sounds, identifying matching media content and then giving you the option of adding clips to your post.

The microphone is activated only under those limited constraints, Facebook says, insisting that it’s not eavesdropping on your conversations and definitely not targeting ads based on what you are talking about in the privacy of your own domain.

When the feature rolled out in May of 2014, a Facebook product manager said that Facebook might target ads “in the future” based on your use of audio identification in posts. For instance you might see an ad for Taylor Swift’s concert tour if you post that you are listening to “Shake It Off.”

But that was speculative at the time. We asked Facebook whether it is targeting ads in that manner and a spokesperson didn’t offer an update.

However, the spokesperson pointed us to a blog post that lays out the limits of Facebook’s listening: it turns the microphone on only when the feature has been activated by the user and when he or she is actually tapping out a status update. And that Facebook isn’t recording or storing your conversations.

Reddit Post Sparks Renewed Attention

That, of course, would be pretty creepy. And cause outrage among Facebook users. Which is happening this week as the issue is getting renewed attention after a post on Reddit caught fire. A Reddit user, NewHoustonian, noticed a suspicious ad on Facebook soon after killing an insect and talking about it with his girlfriend:

After finding and killing a cockroach in my condo, my girlfriend and I were discussing the need for bug spray and our general disgust for bugs. Perhaps, I was speaking quite frantically and loudly because I’m terrified of bugs.

After the incident, we made no internet searches of any kind whatsoever. Nor have I ever searched for anything related to bugs or pest control because mere images freak me out. Yet, within 7-10 minutes of the fracas, an ad appeared on Facebook (on my iPhone) with large pictures of creepy crawlies and the caption “Need Pest Control?”

We were immediately creeped out by the ad’s apparent prescience, and the only explanation we could contrive was that Facebook had picked up on something we said from the microphone.

The post prompted a large response — more than 1,100 comments and a follow-up post that got more than 5,000 upvotes, 1,500+ comments and landed it on the front page of Reddit. Many Redditors commented with examples of their own suspicions that Facebook — as well as Google and Apple — are targeting ads based on things they talked about. Others noted that such occurrences could have been caused by coincidences or browser activity that people had forgotten about.

Facebook declined comment on the specifics of the Reddit post, again pointing to its post from 2014 and saying that the information there still holds true today. To save you the click, here’s the pertinent part:

Myth: People have to use this new feature.

Fact: Nope, this feature is completely optional.

If you don’t turn it on, we won’t use your microphone to try and match TV or music when you write a status update. If you do choose to turn it on and later decide it’s not for you, you can easily turn it off at any time.

Myth: The feature listens to and stores your conversations.

Fact: Nope, no matter how interesting your conversation, this feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn’t listening to or storing your conversations.

Here’s how it works: if you choose to turn the feature on, when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can’t be reversed into the original audio because they don’t contain enough information.

Myth: Facebook is always listening using your microphone.

Fact: Nope, if you choose to turn this feature on, it will only use your microphone (for 15 seconds) when you’re actually writing a status update to try and match music and TV.

Myth: Facebook is automatically posting what you’re listening to.

Fact: We do not automatically post anything about what you’re listening to. If you’ve chosen to use this feature, and we find a match, you choose whether you want to include the TV show or song in your status update.

Myth: Facebook is storing the information from this feature indefinitely.

Fact: If you’ve chosen to use this feature and we find a match, you get to choose whether you post that you’re listening to a particular song or TV show. That post will then appear on Facebook for as long as you choose and to whatever audience you choose, just like any other update.

If we find a match and you don’t post, we log that a particular song or TV show was matched, but we don’t connect this with your profile in any way. We use this to keep a chart of the most watched and listened to songs and TV shows.

If we don’t find a match, we log that we failed. We don’t store the fingerprint.

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About the author

Martin Beck
Martin Beck was Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter from March 2014 through December 2015.

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