A Core77 staffer recently recounted how she had been talking about a particular product with a friend. Not Googling it, just discussing it verbally. In subsequent days she noticed ads popping up on her feed for that particular product. Coincidence?
As it turns out, if you have the Facebook Messenger app on your phone, the mic on your phone is set to "On" by default. Even creepier is this admission by Facebook given to The Independent:
Facebook says that its app does listen to what's happening around it, but only as a way of seeing what people are listening to or watching and suggesting that they post about it.
Kelli Burns, a University of South Florida Mass Communication professor, wasn't buying it:
Professor Burns…says that to test the feature, she discussed certain topics around the phone and then found that the site appeared to show relevant ads.
…The claim chimes with anecdotal reports online that the site appears to show ads for things that people have mentioned in passing.
Admittedly, what we have here are a bunch of anecdotes, and Facebook denies that they're listening in in order to serve relevant ads. But why take the chance that your phone is listening in? I can't think of a single reason why I want any app listening to me.
Here's how you shut the mics off:
Settings --> Privacy --> Microphone
Toggle off the mic for each app on the list.
Settings --> Privacy
Turn off the relevant Facebook permissions.
I found four apps on my phone were listening in without my knowledge. My friend who was with me at the time checked hers and found no less than 11 apps that all had the mic on by default. Can't hurt to give your own phone a look.
We received an e-mail from Facebook, stating "We respectfully request that [Core77] update the piece to reflect our statement, attributable to a spokesperson, on the matter." That statement is as follows:
Facebook does not use your phone's microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people's conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people's interests and other profile information – not what you're talking out loud about.
We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.
I wrote back to the Facebook representative, asking for her comment on Professor Burns' claims, above. The representative responded by pointing out that Burns ultimately recanted those claims, as reported by the BBC and Snopes.