I’m con­vinced Face­book isn’t lis­ten­ing to any of your chats

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - News - By adrian Weck­ler

This is a con­ver­sa­tion I now have at least once a month. Per­son: “I was talk­ing to my friend about get­ting a car the other day. The next day I start see­ing car ads in my Face­book. Are they lis­ten­ing to me through my phone?”

Me: “Not that I’m aware of. Is it pos­si­ble you were search­ing for in­for­ma­tion on cars online?”

Per­son: “No, no! I wasn’t! I was only talk­ing to my friend about it. And then all of a sud­den I start see­ing ads about it. A bit sus­pi­cious, isn’t it?”

Me: “You mean you sus­pect Face­book of bug­ging you?”

Per­son: “Well I’m not a tech ex­pert. But that’s not the first time that’s hap­pened to me.”

Recog­nise this ex­change? Be hon­est: is that per­son you? Do you gen­uinely sus­pect Face­book and Twit­ter and Google (and maybe Ap­ple and Samsung) are con­niv­ing to record your off­line con­ver­sa­tions and look for key­words for the pur­pose of show­ing and sell­ing you ads?

I know that quite a few of you do. Not just from di­rect so­cial me­dia in­ter­ac­tions or ra­dio sta­tion in­ter­views or emails, but from hear­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of pub­lic in­ter­ac­tions about it.

No other ur­ban myth in tech­nol­ogy is as wide­spread. It eas­ily out­num­bers the one where peo­ple claim that if you in­put your ATM pin num­ber in back­wards, it sends an SOS to po­lice that you’re in dan­ger of be­ing mugged.

And it will prob­a­bly out­last the cur­rent top fake tip do­ing the rounds, that Face­book “has a new al­go­rithm” which “chooses the same 25 peo­ple who will read your posts” and urg­ing you to “hold your fin­ger down any­where in this post, click copy, then start a new post and paste this mes­sage to by­pass the sys­tem”.

Make no mis­take: this is a myth, a con­spir­acy the­ory, some­thing that is com­pletely un­proven and very, very, very un­likely.

Ev­ery jour­nal­ist is aware of it. This is one rea­son why, over the past three years, it has been an in­ves­tiga­tive topic for vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor me­dia out­let out there, not to men­tion re­searchers and tech­nol­ogy an­a­lysts.

Yet ev­ery sin­gle one has con­cluded that nei­ther Face­book nor any­one else is se­cretly record­ing your voice con­ver­sa­tions and then serv­ing you ads.

This is de­spite all of us having mas­sive in­cen­tives for prov­ing that the prac­tice ex­ists: prov­ing it would be the big­gest tech scoop (and scan­dal) of the decade. It would make Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica look like a speed­ing of­fence.

Prob­a­bly the most com­pre­hen­sive knock­down of the con­spir­acy the­ory was pub­lished by Wired Mag­a­zine in late 2017. It looked at the is­sue in painstak­ingly de­tail, fo­cus­ing on Face­book in par­tic­u­lar. It pointed out that for Face­book to do what all the pub-talk­ers swear they’re do­ing, it would need to have the equiv­a­lent of a per­ma­nent phone call ac­tive on your phone 24 hours a day, se­cretly. And not just on your phone, but on most phones — more than 3m in Ire­land and some 2bn world­wide.

Aside from the fact that this would turn up on our data records (not to men­tion our monthly phone bills), it would also mean at least 30 times more in­ter­net traf­fic than Face­book is cur­rently ac­tu­ally pro­cess­ing. In other words, Face­book isn’t tech­ni­cally ca­pa­ble of do­ing it.

Even if it were, it wouldn’t have a clue which one of your hun­dreds (or thou­sands) of words to try and com­mer­cialise. For ex­am­ple, Face­book (and Google) have hun­dreds of thou­sands of tar­getable key­words, with thou­sands (at least) rel­e­vant to your lo­cal mar­ket or de­mo­graphic. So why do you think it might choose the one about the car, rather than the one about the pizza, the dress or the iphone? All of these are words you might find your­self ut­ter­ing in the course of a day.

But I know I’m wast­ing good col­umn inches here. No amount of thor­ough re­search is enough to dis­pel a good con­spir­acy the­ory.

So in April, when Mark Zucker­berg tes­ti­fied be­fore the US Congress, Michi­gan Sen­a­tor Gary Peters put the is­sue di­rectly to the Face­book founder.

As Face­book has done be­fore, Zucker­berg flatly de­nied it. So why are we still so be­guiled?

I be­lieve that this myth’s en­ergy springs from a mix­ture of cyn­i­cism about tech­nol­ogy com- pa­nies’ data-gath­er­ing prac­tices and con­fu­sion (even at this point) about what they are al­lowed or not al­lowed to do.

After all, most peo­ple aren’t tech­ni­cal. There are still a hun­dred things your phone does (or your so­cial net­work does) which you aren’t aware of.

More to the point, the mo­ti­va­tion to prove even a shred of that ca­pa­bil­ity could not be more tan­ta­lis­ing.

It would make a celebrity of the per­son ex­pos­ing it and likely get the ser­vice fined or even banned.

Make no mis­take: there are many who lust after such a thing be­ing un­veiled. But it looks very un­likely as it seems to be noth­ing more than a myth.

Claims over Face­book’s ca­pa­bil­ity to lis­ten to all calls are an ur­ban myth

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