Is Facebook secretly listening to us?

Is Facebook listetning to us?

A popular urban legend says that Facebook listens very carefully what we say around our devices – and who didn’t experience talking about something and seing a relevant ad soon after? (And it opens a door for opportunities – just whispering “Hawaii” around your mountain-loving boyfriend’s laptop may have an impact on your next holiday destination choice!). But is it really true? We took a look at what we know about Facebook (and Instagram) data acquisition techniques, and we hope it will help you solve your social dilemma.

The Wandera Experiment

“You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads. We don’t do that.” said Mark Zuckerberg during the famous congress grilling. But can we believe Zuck? A Czech digital security company Wandera decided to check (czech?) if it’s true, and they conducted a little experiment. They played a pre-recorded conversation about pet food around devices with various apps installed and they checked the data usage for each of the apps. Here is what they have found out: 

The increased data consumption in audio room would mean that an app is actively listening and sending data to the cloud. And of course pet food ads in the device’s Facebook feed would be the ultimate proof. However, the data consumption was minimal and the pet food ads didn’t appear.  The data was pretty much the same for iOS device for “Hey Siri”. So, Zuck is right, they don’t eavesdrop. But truth be said, they don’t need to.

Facebook can track you anyway

“Facebook can find you on whatever device you’ve ever checked Facebook on. It can exploit everything that retailers know about you, and even sometimes track your in-store, cash-only purchases; that loyalty discount card is tied to a phone number or email for a reason,” – this is a quote from Antonio Garcia Martinez’ article for the Wired. Martinez is one of the people who built Facebook’s add targeting algorithms.

So what can Facebook see? It knows who you meet, where and when, it reads your messages and status updates – even those that you don’t send / post. It knows where you shop both online and offline. It does listen to your messages recorded on Messenger. A little snippet of code called Facebook Pixel installed on a website recognizes you a Facebook user once you visit the website and adds a little note to the extensive knowledge it has on you (“Looking for a swimsuit? Lovely, now I’ll spam you with exotic holiday ads”).

Ads Blindness and Attention Bias

“But” – you will say – “It happens! I talked about buying a car and I saw an ad thirty seconds later”. This happens because of a mix of things called banner blindness and attention bias.

Every day we see between 5k and 10k ads – this includes absolutely everything that can be called a marketing communication – from a branded milk bottle to a Facebook ad. How much do we really remember? Around 100 and the rest is ignored. In order to not get too overwhelmed with stimuli, our brain developed banner blidness – we filter only those messages that are relevant to us. And this is called attention bias. Pregnant women often notice that there are more pregnant women around. This is obviously not true – they are just more relevant and noticed more often.

And that’s why we tend to notice a content that is potentially important for us – we talk about them and due to our attention bias we are more likely to notice them.

How Facebook targets the ads I see?

It’s a good exercise to see what Facebook thinks about us and how it puts together millions pieces of information to create our digital portrait. It’s somehow comforting to know that the algorithms are not 100% accurate. Click here to see what Facebook thinks you would like to see. And – good news – you can toggle off topics that are not interesting or relevant.


(And by the way, do you want to see what Google thinks you like? Click here!)