Mark DeWitte

Mark DeWitte

Last time, we talked about how to be safe using Facebook. But, what about things Facebook does that we really have no control over just by virtue of agreeing to the terms of use we signed up for when we started using the application?

Terms of use? Yes, that wordy fine print document you agreed to without reading. And it’s not just Facebook that has such a thing. In fact, researchers have determined that it would take the average American 76 work days just to read all the terms of use policies they agreed to each year!

One of the things Facebook does is “track” you. And, you’ve given it permission to do so! Tracking is highly sophisticated and uses very advanced algorithms, mainly to the benefit of paid advertisers on Facebook.

Many people mention this so I’m sure you’ve probably experienced it. You’re having a casual conversation with someone, most of the time within earshot of your mobile phone because let’s face it, they’re always with us, and one of you will mention a product as a recommendation to the other. Later that day, you’re on Facebook and all of sudden, very eerily, there’s an ad on your timeline for the exact product you just talked with your friend about! Makes you wonder doesn’t it? Is Facebook listening to us?

There’s a reason this is happening, but actually listening to our conversations is likely not it even though it certainly seems so. Sometimes it seems like you can just think about something and an ad for what you’re thinking about mysteriously appears!

The accusation that apps are listening has been leveled at social media giants like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Adam Mosseri of Instagram. By the way, Facebook owns Instagram and at last count more than 90 other companies. Every time, they have strongly denied that the apps are listening to users through their smartphone microphones or other devices.

For the most part, the opinion among industry experts is that they are telling the truth. First, doing so would be illegal. And second, can you just imagine the volume of conversations that would have to be actively listened to, recorded, and stored would rival the amount of prayers going up to heaven on a daily basis. Perhaps more so.

Truth is that they may not be listening in the most common sense of the word, but they are definitely tracking us, both online and off. In a way they are eavesdropping on our lives, just not the way most would think.

As an example, let’s say you’re at a gathering with someone, and they tell you about a new online service they just tried and they really liked. You’ve never texted with this friend about that service, you’ve never Googled it, you’ve simply had a conversation with your friend out loud. Of course, your phone is near and that matters in this scenario, just not in the way you might think.

Later that day or the next, you are looking through Facebook and magically there is an ad for the very online service your friend was just speaking to you about.

Facebook didn’t hear your conversation, but they’re good enough at tracking you in other ways that it can feel that way.

Facebook does keep track of the websites we visit, what we’ve searched for, what we’ve purchased, and where we are when we do these things. The results of this tracking has a direct influence on the ads we see when we’re scrolling through Facebook.

Location tracking has just played a big part in what you might consider to be Facebook listening through your microphone. Even when you’re not signed in to the app, Facebook can track the location of your mobile phone. Remember the terms of use we discussed at the start of this article? You’ve given them permission to do so.

In the example above, Facebook was able to determine that you and your friend were at the same gathering, and if your friend had any online interaction with the service you both discussed, then there is your connection. Facebook knows you’re friends on the app, and knows you were together. Your friend talked about that service and Facebook knows it was recently. If your friend had talked about a brick and mortar store they had visited, Facebook knows they were at that store. Using an educated guess, Facebook sends you an ad for what you and your friend may have talked about.

Even more complicated, your friend may not have even visited the site or the store you talked about, but maybe one of his friends had done so. If there is enough similarity there, Facebook is going to take a shot that you might want to see that ad.

In addition to just being with that friend, Facebook knows your interests, demographics, where you’ve been, groups you’re part of, trends you follow, and the list goes on. They compare those with the same details of your friend. If you’re similar, your friend’s liking a certain product or service may mean you could possibly like the same thing and Facebook gives the ad a shot with you.

Sometimes it feels that even just thinking about something will generate an ad for it. That’s probably less of a coincidence that you think. Anything Facebook picked up, either before or after you just thought about it, could trigger the ad. Engaging with a post, liking a person’s photo, or signing into another online service with your Facebook account are all examples of that. A complex algorithm is in fact “listening,” just not using the microphones it may seem like it’s using.

If you want to limit being tracked, there are permissions you adjust to limit how Facebook tracks and uses your information. But, just using the app in any capacity gives it enough information to go on to learn about your potential interests for advertising purposes. The only way to be one hundred percent sure you’re not being tracked is to quit the application and never use it.

Being shown ads after talking about something can be coincidental, but probably not as much as we think.

There are likely no humans sitting somewhere listening to what your microphone is picking up, but apps are constantly monitoring our behaviors to the benefit of advertisers on those apps.

It does seem like Big Brother is always listening, and he is. Just not in the way you might think.