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Is Facebook eavesdropping?

There he was, surrounded by the hum and flicker of scattered whispers and calculating machines, hunched behind the glow of triple-wide screens, fastidiously typing with Nevel Papperman ferocity…

Who is he? He’s the one listening in on your conversations to serve you content-related ads on your Facebook feed.  At least this is how I imagined it, until I decided to deep-dive into the black hole of internet privacy.

If you’re reading this on our fourth edition newspaper, good news. You can say anything you want and no ads are going to pop up in print. Try it. See? The magic of bonafide paper.

If you’re reading this on our website, Facebook received information about you when you clicked on this page. Yeah…I’ll explain that in a minute.

Ron Lee, ORU Information Security Manager believes that “if you’re not paying for the service, you are probably the product” and explains how Facebook knows so much about you already that they don’t even need to listen to your conversations.

This is a common counter argument, so let’s unpack it.

Of course, Facebook gets your profile information, pages you and your friends “like” and the locations you check into on Facebook. But they use your activity across all their products (including Instagram and WhatsApp), your activity on other websites and apps and your location— to regulate ads.

Ever tapped “Log in with Facebook” on a mobile app or website? Data from your behavior on that app is sent to Facebook, according to the FB site:

“When you install an app, you give it permission to access your public profile, which includes your name, profile pictures, username, user ID (account number), networks and any info you choose to make publicly available. You also give the app other info to personalize your experience, including your friends list, gender, age range and locale.”

In fact, Cambridge Analytica received over 50,000 Facebook users information from a third-party mobile app— not from the Facebook site itself.

Not a social media user? No need to be. Facebook gets data from 23 percent of sites on the worldwide web, according to a Princeton study. This includes websites with any embedded Facebook widgets, such as a “like” or “share” button. Information they collect from these sites include the pages you visit, ads you click or cursor over, the time you spend, what you type (but may not post) and even credit card transactions.

Facebook states: “a game developer could use our API to tell us what games you play, or a business could tell us about a purchase you made in its store. We also receive information about your online and offline actions and purchases from third-party data providers who have the rights to provide us with your information.”

The list goes on, but the point is that ads can show up on your timeline from a large range of data. So yeah, they don’t seem to need my audio, but why wouldn’t they try to benefit from it if they’re granted access anyway? The more the merrier, right?

Sandy Parakilas, the former Facebook Operations Manager, believes that targeting ads from microphone access is highly unlikely.

“They know a tremendous amount about you and that enables them to make guesses about what to advertise to you that can be uncannily accurate,” Parakilas said in an interview with CBS news.

However, Parakilas also claimed that Facebook “prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse,” in a New York Times op-ed.

But no matter how the concerns circulate, Facebook incessantly denies the claims.

“We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information—not what you’re talking out loud about,” Facebook stated, when rumors began to circulate in 2016.

On their “About Ads” page, Facebook states that they only access the microphone “if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”

In March 2018, when Senator Gary Peters asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook uses audio information from users for advertising purposes Zuckerberg confidently responded “No,” and then added that it was a “conspiracy theory” and denied the allegation once again.

Having experienced this “conspiracy theory” myself, they don’t fully convince me.

But the fact is that it is possible for Facebook to access your microphone at any point, with your permission, and use that information for advertising. The claim is that Facebook does not. The truth? We don’t know for sure yet, but this issue hardly scratches the surface of potential internet security concerns.

Alexa, play Leon Bridges’ “Bad Bad News.”

Sources for podcast:

2:25 Cambridge analytica data scandal (CNBC)

3:08 ORU Internet security (Oracle)

3:46 Facebook Ads (Facebook)

5:45 Facebook data policy (Facebook)

8:25 Ambient audio (Time)