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 three million in Ireland and some two billion 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 companies’ 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.
For example, people are still amazed when you direct them to myactivity.google.com. There, you will see days, weeks and months of detailed maps showing where you’ve been, where you travelled and even photos you took at those locations.
Google has been tracking you and storing all of this. But it’s been doing it mostly legally. (I say ‘mostly’, as the search giant was caught recording our locations last month even when we indicated we didn’t want to be tracked in our settings.)
So in one sense, it may not seem to be that much of a leap that a service like Google or Facebook, which we’ve already given umpteen permission ticks to, have extended their data-gathering to triggered audio keywords on our phones.
And yet, if you think about it, it is a much, much bigger step over the line. When Facebook serves us an ad based on something we’ve Googled, that’s somewhat in context. When it’s based on a completely offline private physical conversation, that’s outrageous.
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.