Raise your hand if this has happened to you. You are talking to someone about what you plan to spend your money on. Maybe a holiday or a new laptop. Then the next time you open the Facebook app, you’ll find ads for exactly what you talked about earlier.
This is terrible! You are scared! This is perfectly understandable. Is that enough to get you thinking, is Facebook listening to me? The simplest answer is no. Why? Well, Facebook has made an official statement that makes it clear that they just don’t do it. Of course, no good conspiracy theorist would be shaken by mere denial. Of course , they will deny it.
So let’s take a different approach to this issue. Instead of taking Facebook’s word for it, let’s see how it is possible for them to record, process, and analyze everyone’s recorded speech in order to deliver targeted ads.
First, is that possible?
The whole premise of Facebook listens to you arguably if it is a technical impossibility to remove. However, if you hoped that was the case, prepare yourself to be disappointed.
On paper, it’s entirely possible to record someone through a phone microphone, convert their speech to text, and use that text to create targeted ads. All the technologies necessary for this exist.
After all, we use smart speakers and voice assistants like Siri and Cortana every day. They always listen to their keywords, can accurately decipher your speech, and even “understand” what you are asking for to complete tasks.
Of course, such services require quite a lot of cloud computing power. When you talk to Siri, your speech is sent to the data center, where powerful server hardware turns it into information that software can understand. This is an important point, because the data center is paid.
Every time you use something like Siri or Google Assistant, someone has to pay for it. For an on-demand service such as a voice assistant, this cost is manageable. However, here we are talking about hours of voice recording and processing in case you get useful information for targeted advertising. The advertising revenue margin is already small, which means that such a project has practically no economic justification.
At the same time, modern smartphones are powerful enough for local voice processing. Google, for example, already offers offline speech recognition on select Pixel phones. Of course, users will quickly notice battery drain. However, since no real-time processing is required, phones can handle voice packets safely overnight while charging.
This would mean that Facebook can receive data for free. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible for someone not to notice what is happening and expose it.
So the bottom line is that this is technically feasible, but it doesn’t make financial sense.
Cui Bono – Who Benefits?
This brings us to the next important question you should always ask in such a situation – who benefits from Facebook listening? We already mentioned this above, but if the idea is that Facebook creates targeted ads based on this data, how does it benefit them?
For this to be meaningful, targeted ads generated from this data will outperform those generated in the usual way. Since they will cost more to create, advertisers will also have to pay more for them. Which would mean the existence of a secret advertising layer with significantly higher returns.
Once again, someone would have noticed. Most conspiracies fail because they require large numbers of independent people to keep the secret perfectly. If Facebook were doing this, you’d expect a handful of independent informants to speak. It just didn’t happen in the years this story existed.
None of the above does anything to erase the basic observation that originally gave rise to this idea. Sometimes an ad appears on Facebook for what you just talked about. Damn it, sometimes you will see ads for what you only thought ! Luckily, though, the idea that Facebook reads your mind is not yet widespread.
So how can we explain this? In fact, there are several alternative hypotheses. There is more here than we have, but these three are probably the most likely and, unfortunately, a rather trivial explanation.
Count hits, not misses
Count efficacy, not lost items
Human nature places more emphasis on what is remarkable than what is not. Because of this, we, as a species, are very poor at judging things like probability. For example, when deciding to buy lottery tickets, people pay much more attention to one person who has won a jackpot than to millions of people who have won absolutely nothing.
Likewise, there is a good chance that you will notice this Facebook phenomenon just because it is such a strange thing. You don’t remember when you opened the app and saw ads related to a recent conversation. So this is probably just a weird coincidence, but it is not completely random.
Because of the way Facebook works, the likelihood of this happening is higher than you think, which brings us to the next alternative explanation.
You have already provided information to Facebook
Facebook has already given the information
Facebook uses algorithms that take your data and then match ads to you. You have already voluntarily provided as much data to Facebook as it could wish. Photos, messages and profile information contain almost every detail of your life. More importantly, Facebook can infer what you want to buy based on the behavior of other people.
We would like to think that we are all unique snowflakes, but in fact, if you and a group of others share similar interests, chances are good that you will also follow their shopping behavior.
This means that there is a non-random, non-zero chance that what you are talking to someone about will also turn out to be a topic or product predicted by Facebook software. This leads to a false positive connection in your brain, which caused one another. On the contrary, it is the third factor associated with both events.
You are familiar with the zeitgeist
You click on Zeitgeist
How much free will do you have? Are your thoughts really yours? Okay, let’s not get too philosophical here, but you can’t be sure your conversation hasn’t been influenced by a broader trend.
We are more connected than ever, and your stream of consciousness will reflect the Zeitgeist (zeitgeist) to some extent. In other words, you are more likely to be talking about things that are trending right now, which means that Facebook will also serve you relevant ads. At some point, these two processes are about to intercept, triggering an eerie event that you will remember.
This does not mean that no one is listening!
While it’s likely that Facebook doesn’t record all of your conversations and track them for keywords, that doesn’t mean someone isn’t listening. There have already been many reports of questionable practices involving devices such as smart speakers and smart cameras.
Moreover, government agencies such as the NSA have the money, time and motivation to make this practice feasible. In addition, there is the problem of hackers who can infect your phone with malware and record everything that happens around the device.
So while the conspiracy theory “Is Facebook listening to me?” Is likely pointless, it doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep on digital privacy in general. The good news is that the privacy and security measures in smartphone operating systems are constantly improving. This makes it harder for rogue apps to spy on you.
There is no perfect privacy or security, but there is no all-or-nothing principle. With regard to the Facebook conspiracy, we can probably allay this particular concern. At least for now.