Is Facebook secretly listening to you?

By GILLIAN LELCHUK | December 2, 2017

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ALL PICTURES COURTESY OF GILLIAN LELCHUK My dog, Neo, riding in his car seat in various stages of his life.

Over the summer, I was talking to my mother about the strap that secures my dog, Neo, to his car seat. The strap in question is a piece of fabric about one foot long that clips onto both the car seat and my dog’s collar. And Neo had chewed through yet another strap.

Now, we couldn’t exactly give Neo the freedom to roam the car while we’re moving. Sure, he might sit still in his seat, but more often than not he’d climb into the driver’s lap, barking and pawing and being an all-around nuisance. So my mom told me she was in the market for a new dog car seat strap, a fairly niche item, I would think.

The next day, I was scrolling through Facebook on my phone. As you are probably aware of, Facebook is a haven for targeted ads. Did you click on an Amazon link for a llama Hanukkah sweater once? Now your newsfeed is full of various other animal-holiday-themed merchandise.

Currently, I’ve got ads for computer graphics companies, likely because I have been reading up on how to use InDesign in preparation for the layout of this magazine.

That day, what kind of ad did I find in my newsfeed? It was, you guessed it, an ad for dog car seat straps. A super common thing for a 20-year-old college student to need, right?

Wrong!

This is an incredibly niche product, used only by owners of small dogs who are too rambunctious to sit still in the car and too anxious to ride in their kennels in the trunk.

How could Facebook possibly have known about my family’s need for such an item? I wasn’t even going to be the one to purchase it, my mother was. And this was an in-person face-to-face conversation, not a conversation over the phone or text or email or direct message on LinkedIn.

How could Facebook know what we were talking about? We weren’t in a room with a computer. Facebook hadn’t been open on my phone. But my phone was there. Could Facebook have heard us through my phone, even though it wasn’t unlocked and the app wasn’t open?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is... maybe. Yes. No. Probably not. I may have (read: I have) stumbled upon a conspiracy theory of massive proportions. And I might be (read: I am) one of the conspirators.

In a statement released last year, Facebook executives stated that they do not use your phone’s microphone to listen to your conversations. They do show targeted ads, but these are based on your expressed interests on Facebook and “other profile information.”

Facebook’s Vice President of Advertising Rob Goldman reiterated this in a tweet from October 26, 2017.

“We don’t - and have never - used your microphone for ads. Just not true,” he wrote.

How do you explain this ad for dog car seat straps, huh, Goldman? What’s under the umbrella of “other profile information”?

A Forbes article published in late October actually uses the word “conspiracy theory” to describe how many people have begun to believe that Facebook is eavesdropping. They argue that so many people feel this way because people are talking about it, so it seems a lot more prevalent than it is. It’s like how when you learn a new word, you start hearing it everywhere. It’s not a magical phenomenon, it’s just that you start noticing it more.

That seems like a fine explanation, and I would be inclined to believe it if it was about someone else. But this is a Real Thing That Happened To Me, and I came up with my paranoia about Facebook listening to my conversations all on my own, without the input of the internet. I’d never heard these rumors before. In fact, prior to The Great Dog Car Seat Strap Fiasco of 2017, I was generally in favor of native advertising.

I enjoyed only seeing ads that were relevant to my interests, even if they were relevant by the loosest of connections (re: llama Hanukkah sweaters). It’s how I’ve thus far avoided ads for restaurants I’d never visit, anything related to Christmas and peanut butter products. I rarely buy anything from ads: partly because I spend so much money on concert tickets and Chipotle that I don’t have anything left for Hanu-llama sweaters; and partly because I have a good amount of self-control when it comes to buying things I don’t need.

To summarize, I like native advertising.

Correction: I used to like native advertising. No more, Zuckerberg. I don’t want you mining any of my data anymore, not after this betrayal. I disallowed the Facebook app from using my microphone ever, even when I’m using it. And if I knew how to turn off cookies or whatever helps websites remember things about me, I would do that too. But I’ll just stick with my generic, user-friendly ad blocker for now.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t really like the idea of a computer program downloading data about me, running it through an algorithm and spitting out some sort of product it thinks I’ll enjoy. I don’t need a robot to tell me what I want, and I certainly don’t need a robot to know me that well. I don’t even like people to know me that well.

What became of that initial ad for the dog strap? Well, let’s just say that now we secure Neo to the car seat with a chain. We already had that in the house, and he can’t chew through it, and we didn’t buy it from a targeted Facebook ad. And I think he’s pretty happy with it.

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