Is Mark Zuckerberg spying on you? Oh, yes, absolutely. Is he secretly recording your voice like, all the time? Probably not.
Per the BBC, Facebook was once again compelled to shoot down rumours it is secretly hijacking computer and mobile device mics to covertly record conversations after Reply All presenter PJ Vogt raised the issue during a recent podcast. After people who called into the show related a number of eerie anecdotes — mostly regarding product ads showing up for items that were allegedly only brought up in verbal conversation — Facebook advertising V.P. Rob Goldman responded on Twitter.
“I run ad products at Facebook,” Goldman said. “We don’t — and have never — used your microphone for ads. Just not true.”
I run ads product at Facebook. We don't - and have never - used your microphone for ads. Just not true.
— Rob Goldman (@robjective) October 26, 2017
The reasons behind the rumours are understandable — Facebook’s global domination of social media and rights to everything users put into it tend to conjure ominous implications in the popular mind. Many, if not most, of those worries are justified. But the reasons to be sceptical of this particular rumour are largely practical, rather than divinations of Facebook’s true intentions.
For one, Facebook is necessarily tethered by the reality that users can always choose to opt out, and any revelation that it was activating users’ recording devices without explicit opt-in permission and sharing that information with the highest bidder could easily qualify as one of the largest corporate scandals of all time. The legal implications would be massive and likely criminal. As powerful as Facebook is, there’s no reason for it to risk alienating so many users by flexing its muscle so nefariously.
Second, Facebook does have some audio recognition features, such as an opt-in “Identify TV and Music” feature that records snippets of sound to identify what users are watching. Even if you don’t believe Facebook when it says these and other features only activate when users tell them to and are never used for advertising, recent updates suggest the company’s years-old voice recognition research program just isn’t to the stage where it could spy on millions of users simultaneously.
In May, Messenger product chief Stan Chudnovsky told Recode that Facebook has only completed the initial steps of voice recognition — determining vocal triggers for activating the software — but had not yet mastered translating verbal inputs into machine-comprehensible text or translating that machine-comprehensible text into a coherent automated response.
Chudnovsky was referring to the complicated task of building a Facebook AI assistant, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, but many of the underlying technical principles would work similarly to Facebook’s theoretical spyware.
“You are still in the world of multiplying probabilities, which means that the outcome of that exercise is actually lower than you’d like it to be,” Chudnovsky told Recode. “... Once we nail those things then we can go into voice. But until we nail that we don’t want to go into a world where we teach people what we cannot do well.”
Recording everything users say for advertising purposes may not be worth the effort until that technology is more refined. Handling large chunks of data requires filtering out noise, and the percentage of useful data in any conversation one might be having at any time could be very low. But Facebook can already see all the text users put into it, which is already in a format it can easily analyse and is working to understand on an even more in-depth level.
Third, there’s no reason to suspect Facebook is secretly activating microphones and transmitting data to itself because no security researchers have ever detected that kind of behaviour.
None of this means that in the future, Facebook will not lure users into sharing more and more of the world around them — for example, by perfecting their AI assistant to work with voice commands and then subtly pushing users towards being comfortable with it recording more and more of their day-to-day lives. They accomplished the same feat with profile information, status updates, messaging, and location tracking, so it’s probably inevitable the company will try to find a way to normalise recording your voice all the time, too.
But in the meantime, possible explanations for Facebook’s seemingly creepy ad placement include things like predictive data analytics, spying on users and their friends’ statuses and messages, and random coincidence. If you’re unconvinced, you can just turn off Facebook’s access to your phone’s microphone. If that doesn’t reassure you, migrating as much of your day-to-day internet use away from the Facebook mass surveillance programs we already know about would probably be a better use of your time than fretting about Facebook mass surveillance programs that only might exist.
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this post if we hear back.