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The following type of scenario has happened so many times that it has almost become an urban legend: you’re talking to some of your friends or family members about some obscure product, and then, all of a sudden, the next time you’re using Facebook, there’s an advertisement for that product in your newsfeed. It’s almost as if Facebook were listening to you the whole time in the background, taking down notes about types of new products to offer you in ads. It can be downright spooky sometimes. So the big question becomes: Is Facebook really listening to you, or can this be explained some other way?
Why you’re seeing that ad
Of course, Facebook vehemently denies any “eavesdropping” on its part. Instead, say Facebook executives, it really comes down to variables like GPS location and the wealth of demographic and psychographic data Facebook already has on you. Once Facebook has gathered a critical mass of data about you and your social circle, it’s actually remarkably easy to predict what you and your friends might be talking about on any given day, once you add in the GPS variable. Scary, but true.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re a mom and that you are going on a play date with your best friend and your children. Well, the chances are high that both of you are on Facebook and that you both consume “mom content.” So there’s that – Facebook knows what you’ve been reading, what you’ve been liking, and what you’ve been sharing. And it also knows what your friend has been reading, liking and sharing. Now, when both of you head out on your play date at the local playground, Facebook now also has GPS location data for both of you, so it knows that you are meeting since both of your GPS locations match up.
And this is where the Facebook AI engine goes to work – it can analyze your friend’s Facebook account, realize that she was just raving about a particular product for moms, and can predict that she might tell all of her friends about that product. So when this same AI engine knows that both of you are meeting for an extended period of time at the same GPS location, it can also predict that your friend might mention that product to you. Essentially, Facebook is betting that your friend is a “mom influencer” and is going to be promoting certain products or brands whenever she can.
But is that all there is to it?
Of course, that’s the narrative Facebook wants you to believe. It’s just AI, guys, don’t worry about it. We visit so many websites and consume so many online services each day, that all the Big Tech players must have huge digital dossiers on all of us. Facebook even has a “why you’re seeing this ad” feature to explain away all the seeming coincidences.
And, while this scenario does sound relatively plausible if you think about it, it doesn’t quite explain EVERY single scenario. Sometimes, it seems, Facebook knows what you are thinking, even if you haven’t searched for an item online, mentioned it in a social media post, or done anything online that could have possibly tipped off Facebook that you might have a certain product or brand in mind. And, moreover, you’ve also turned off all of your privacy settings on your phone so that Facebook couldn’t possibly track you when you leave the house.
And so that leaves one final scenario: Facebook is somehow surreptitiously running in the background on your phone, even when your Facebook app is not open. And it is somehow gaining access to the microphone on your phone, and then recording or analyzing your speech in near real-time. How else to explain that those creepy ads seem to pop up in your Facebook feed literally within hours of having said something to someone else? In that case, Facebook would be nothing more and nothing less than a digital stalker, a sort of stealthy 24/7 surveillance agent monitoring your every move.
Options for those concerned about privacy
Is Facebook really listening to me? Since we live in America (and not an authoritarian state like China), let’s give Facebook the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Mark Zuckerberg and the AI wizards at Facebook really have figured out a way to mine all the data out there to predict what you might be saying to all of your friends. And let’s assume, just for argument’s sake (and not because we really believe it), that Facebook really does allow you to set your privacy settings in such a way that Facebook couldn’t possibly track you in real life.
In that case, the only option left is really to leave or abandon Facebook altogether if you don’t want to see those creepy ads. At the very least, stop using the Facebook single sign-on function to log into third-party websites. Stop using plugins and widgets created by Facebook third-party vendors. And take a ruthless, no-prisoners approach to tightening up your privacy settings. That might be just about the only way to stop Facebook from predicting your every move.