scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Is Facebook listening to me?

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

'Oysters. Gas grills. Oysters. Gas grills."

I spent most of my Monday sauntering around the house, absently chanting these words over and over like a mantra. No, I wasn't making mental notes of necessary items for my grilled oyster party. I was testing a creeping suspicion; and if I looked a little crazy doing it, at least nobody was there to hear it. Well, except maybe Facebook.

The weirdness started back in May 2014, when Facebook first announced the launch of a new audio recognition feature. Users who opted in by enabling the microphones on their mobile devices could now use Facebook to identify music in the wild and share it with their networks. The app's authorized eavesdropping would take place during the composition of status updates, and would be indicated by a small icon of a flickering audio meter.


By that time, song recognition was already familiar enough that "Shazam" had long genericized into a verb. Shazam was a huge hit right from its pre-app emergence as a mobile service in 2006. Back then, you'd simply call 2580, hoist your crappy Nokia into the air at a noisy bar, and await a text message confirming that, yes, it appears you enjoy Pussycat Dolls.

Once Apple opened the mobile doors of its App Store in 2008, the app version of Shazam was among the marquee debut downloads for the iPhone 2.0. It allowed users to view clips of songs on YouTube and purchase them directly through iTunes — and this was all before you could even download music over that spiffy new 3G network.

Since then, Shazam has identified upward of 15 billion songs, and has increasingly turned its attention toward visual recognition services. Apps like Soundhound and Echoprint have sprung up to compete. Recgonition systems like DJ Monitor and Beatmap automatically track songs played at clubs and relay playlists to PROs (performing rights organizations, like ASCAP and BMI). Firms like Symphony are now starting to use audio recognition to track tricky viewership numbers of streaming networks like Netflix.


And Facebook isn't the only social network dabbling in audio recognition. It now features prominently in Peach, and Twitter's recent acquisition of smart-headphone startup Muzik suggests they may have their ears to the wall as well.

Despite the ubiquity of audio recognition, Facebook's application of the stuff fed already mounting anxieties surrounding overly attentive technology.

Samsung's smart TVs came under scrutiny in early 2015 when their terms of service stated that "if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition." The company was quick to clarify that its voice recognition feature was only activated when asked, and only listened for commands and searches.

Nosy televisions were just one concern among a growing many. Voice recognition was driving a competitive field of digital assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Amazon's Echo. It was built into everything from Nest fixtures to Xboxes.

It was around this time that a Reddit post appeared in the r/technology forum, positing a "crazy conspiracy theory" suggesting that Instagram (a Facebook-owned app that also requests microphone access for videos) was siphoning conversations and funneling them over to Facebook, where through some sneaky algorithmic alchemy, they'd generate targeted ads. Commenters piled on with matching suspicions, citing conversations they swore were surreptitiously snatched by the app and zapped into ads. "My girlfriend and I were talking about engagement," one tester wrote, "and then we BOTH started to get ads about engagement rings."


A battle broke out online: "Is Facebook Secretly Listening To You To Target Ads?" one post asked. "No, What Facebook Hears On Your Phone Isn't Triggering Ads," another replied. Facebook redirected the fresh batch of concerns to its original blog post introducing the feature, which made clear that it was completely optional, entirely focused on making TV and music matches (not storing conversations about your potential engagement), and only functional during the composition of status updates.

So was any of it really happening? Or was this growing stack of reported coincidences just a mass outbreak of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? (That is, a frequency illusion, which finds that thing you just discovered suddenly appearing seemingly everywhere.) I decided to find out for myself by experimenting with Facebook's audio recognition until I hit a slight snag. It was gone.

I looked everywhere, tapped everything, but it seemed the Facebook app now only cared what I was listening to insofar as I was willing to self-report it from a searchable database. The presence of the tool gave me one kind of anxiety, but its quiet disappearance stoked another one.


Had I opted out and forgotten? (I reinstalled the app to make sure; still nothing when I logged back on.) Or had they simply discontinued the feature? And further, equipped with the ability to tune in, what's stopping them?

Thus: Oysters and gas grills. Repeated verbal tests under a variety of posting circumstances have yet to turn up anything suspicious. My feed remains clogged with the usual jam of ads for drum machines on eBay and cheap flights — not a shellfish or a Weber to be found. Maybe Facebook heard me talking about the test? Conversely, should I be offended that Facebook isn't listening to me?

"Should I be offended that Facebook isn't listening to me?"

By this point in the exercise, my husband has completely tuned me out. It's the kind of clear not-listening that I can appreciate, that frees me of any doubt.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.