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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InCyberDefense
Lately, we have received dozens of messages at InCyberDefense. Readers have asked if it is possible for Facebook or Google to listen in on real-world conversations through a smartphone’s microphone.
What is the most common reason for this question? Many people state that shortly after having an offline conversation on a certain topic, they start to see ads in their Facebook or Instagram newsfeeds for products that are eerily similar to the topic they discussed.
As an example, I talked about my daughter’s broken arm while I was driving in the car with my wife. Several hours later as I scrolled through Facebook, I saw multiple ads for comfortable slings and braces.
Coincidence? The conspiracy theorists say “no.”
“If a product or service is seemingly ‘free.’ then you are the product.” -Wes O’Donnell
How Do Facebook and Google Get Your Data?
Facebook posted Q4 2017 earnings of a staggering $12.97 billion. But anyone can sign up for a Facebook account and use all its services free of charge.
So how does Facebook make money? The answer is you.
You and I have freely given Facebook myriad details about our personal lives. This results in a better user experience among our friends and family members. The more Facebook knows about us, the better it can execute its networking algorithm.
Facebook sits on a virtual Mount Everest of personal data on 1.4 billion active users. This data is digital gold to companies that want to reach a highly targeted audience.
For example, Ford Motor Company could blast a TV commercial out to 500,000 random people who may share nothing more than inhabiting the same geographic location. Ford could also target 25,000 Facebook users who are far down the sales funnel and ready to buy.
In addition to users voluntarily giving Facebook their personal data, the Facebook pixel – a line of code that tracks web browsing history – is installed on millions of websites. This coding enables advertisers like Ford to get a peek at what you’re seeing online. For instance, if you browse for cars online, you will see car ads.
When You’re Offline, Can Online Companies Still Spy on You?
What happens to Facebook’s monitoring when you’re not online? The answer is geolocation.
Through your phone’s GPS, the IP addresses to which you connect and close Wi-Fi access points, Facebook knows where you are geographically. You can disable location tracking for Facebook, but many other iOS and Android apps track your location and report it back to Facebook. You can disable location tracking on a per-app basis by going into your phone’s settings.
Loyalty Cards: Another Way to Track You
I have reward cards at perhaps a dozen different brick-and-mortar retail stores. One of my favorites, Best Buy, gives you money back in the form of store credit (reward zone certificates) after you have accumulated so many reward zone points.
What does Best Buy get in return? They get my email address, home mailing address, phone number and date of birth. Information about my most recent Best Buy purchase spreads like wildfire to third-party data collectors like Acxiom or Nielsen.
These data brokers know exactly what I have purchased and the quantity of my purchases, as well as if I used a loyalty card during my transaction. Often, I’m asked to give a telephone number to sign up for loyalty programs.
Guess who else has recently started asking for my phone number as a sign-in option? You guessed it: Facebook.
This information makes it very likely that you will see ads related to products that you may have recently purchased offline. Facebook works directly with six different data brokers to serve the most relevant ads to its billion-plus users.
What Can You Do to Prevent Companies from Monitoring You?
Remember that ads are very important to the Internet ecosystem; it’s how many publishers pay to generate the written content and videos that you love to consume. But if you absolutely hate ads that are unnervingly relevant to you, then I recommend the following steps:
- Carefully review who you grant location access to in your phone’s settings. The setting should be “Never” or “While using app,” but it should never be set to “Always.”
- Never give a brick-and-mortar retail store your real phone number or your most frequently used email address when you sign up for loyalty or rewards programs.
- Opt out for interest-based advertising on Facebook. Go into your personal account settings and delete any interests under the “ads” option.
- All the major data brokers allow people to opt out of having your personal data shared to others. Visit each broker’s site individually and go through their submission form. The largest data brokers are:
Facebook and Google Have No Need to Spy on You by Microphone
Ultimately, Facebook and Google are not spying on you through your phone’s microphone. They don’t need to.
We give them our data voluntarily without realizing what a valuable resource it really is. What we don’t give them, they can piece together from numerous other sources and data brokers.
It’s likely that Facebook and Google already know more about you than most of us would be comfortable with. Our privacy is still in our control, if you’re willing to take the necessary steps to safeguard it.