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No, Facebook Is Not Listening to Conversations and Targeting Ads

By Published on .

Facebook denies that is listening to your conversations through microphones or accesses other information in ways you don't know about. But unsubstantiated rumors won't die.
Facebook denies that is listening to your conversations through microphones or accesses other information in ways you don't know about. But unsubstantiated rumors won't die.

An AdAge editor was sure Facebook was spying on her private online conversations in Slack, where she'd recently mentioned to a colleague a high-school friend she hadn't thought about for years.

The next day the high school friend sent her a Facebook friend request.

Had the friend been served a suggestion by Facebook based on the editor's conversation in Slack? That creepy feeling that Facebook must have tapped the conversation was the same one many Facebook users claim to have experienced.

It's an urban legend that won't go away, even though Facebook denies it consistently.

"I run ads product at Facebook. We don't—and have never—used your microphone for ads," tweeted Rob Goldman, Facebook's vp of ads, this weekend in response to the latest flare-up of online chatter about spooky ads. "Just not true."

Goldman was responding to an old YouTube video posted to Reddit over the weekend. The video was of a man talking about how he and his girlfriend don't have a cat and don't search for cats online. But he claimed Facebook served ads based on conversations picked up through his iPhone's microphone.

He then says a few cat-related phrases, the video jumps to a Facebook feed, and an ad for cat food appears.

The video was not verifiable and hardly scientific, but dozens of Reddit commenters claimed the same phenomenon happened to them.

However, like the Ad Age editor who found a friend request from someone she had just typed into Slack, people are likely making connections that aren't there.

The editor, in fact, reached out to her friend, and found that she just happened to be thinking about her, too. No Facebook meddling involved.

Facebook does not offer the ability to target ads based on keywords from real-world conversations, but if it had that capability it would charge a lot for it, guesses Baker Lambert, global data director at TBWA Worldwide.

"Facebook would be selling that to advertisers at a much higher premium price if they could, otherwise they would have no reason to do it," Lambert says. "And they're not selling it to advertisers."

Lambert says people just focus on a few random occurrences out of billions of possible scenarios that take place on Facebook. "There will always be one-tenth of one percent of people who get a weird spooky thing that happens," Lambert says.

"When you think of the scale of Facebook with billions of people and millions of different advertisers," Lambert says, "It is always going to happen that someone is talking about one thing or doing one thing and then randomly sees and advertisement that matches that."

There are some marketing technologies that use a device's microphone. One is called "acoustic fingerprinting," which is most commonly used in apps like Shazam. The app can identify a song or other content, but the technology can be used to collect data.

Retailers could put acoustic fingerprinting technology in their apps and are able to see when a consumer visited their stores or saw a commercial on TV.

The fear of listening devices is likely only growing, with more gadgets that come with audio and video components, like Amazon Echo, Google Home, smart TVs and even refrigerators. The extent of data collection and the ability to target ads based on that data are only going to become spookier.

Still, sometimes the creep factor is all in the consumer's head. Like one Reddit commenter said about an ad misunderstanding: "One time Facebook started sending me ads for razor cleaning kits after I bought a new Braun razor. I was freaking out," the commenter said. "Then I remembered I cross checked prices on Amazon before buying it."

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