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Have you heard the rumor that Facebook is spying by recording your everyday conversation? Or maybe you’ve had an experience of Facebook offering a friend request after you had lunch with a shared friend? Facebook denies any form of spying. Are they being truthful or are they going behind our backs and hiding in the shadows of the Internet?

Ad Retargeting

Ad retargeting refers to a marketer using data about your browsing or buying history to advertise products you’re likely to buy.

It’s well known that Facebook and other websites participate in ad retargeting. However, stories have arisen that question how that data is being collected. One story that has been widely shared is about a couple talking about getting a cat and then, suddenly, ads for cat food appear on their Facebook profile.[1] Or the one about. a pregnant teen who was targeted for diaper and stroller ads before she even knew she was pregnant.

We’ve all been the victim of ad retargeting on Google or Facebook. For example, the other day I searched for a specific lotion from Bath & Body Works and added it to my cart. Before checking out, I closed the website to go on Facebook. JUST THEN, an ad was presented to me for the exact lotion I was waiting to purchase. Creepy!


One of the largest social media outlets under fire regarding the invasion of privacy is Facebook. With over 2.3 billion Facebook users, this social media giant has a responsibility to protect its customers. Or do they?

In response to allegations, Facebook denied spying and claims they do not use microphone technology to listen in on our conversations.[2] Without our consent, that would be illegal.

Maybe there are different reasons why these coincidences are occurring. In psychology, we call the feeling of learning something and then noticing that the same thing appears constantly the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.[2] In other words, it could be just your imagination and it’s truly a coincidence.

Smart Devices

Perhaps that explanation isn’t persuasive enough. There are smart devices (like televisions, refrigerators, and speakers) and even children’s toys that bend the rules of privacy and know more about us than we’d be comfortable with. Smart devices can use location, data, and even a microphone to gain personal information that is valuable to marketers.[3]

For example, smart connected toys like Talking Barbie are on the market, and parents are becoming concerned.[3] These toys not only record the sounds and conversations you home. They also store that data on a server. The doll can then respond with one of the thousands of canned responses based on an algorithm. If your daughter asks Barbie what outfit she should choose, Barbie may suggest she consider a career in fashion merchandising.

Smartwatches also raise privacy concerns.[3] For example, the Apple Health app on iPhones and Google Fit can track and collect data on your location wherever you take your phone.[4]

Smart speakers like Siri, Alexa, Echo, and Google Home are other examples of smart-connected appliances. Recent estimates are that Alexa has over 10,000 skills available.

Pixel and Digital Exhaust

The ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ features on Facebook and other social media sites also provide important marketing data that allow those sites to more specifically target you.[5] The more they know about you, the better they can conveniently dish up items you will be compelled to buy.

Even with Facebook’s denial of privacy violations, many are still skeptical. During an episode of the podcast ‘Reply All,’ the hosts informed listeners that Facebook uses a program called Pixel. This program collects data about your online behavior and is installed on millions of websites.[6]

In fact, whenever you surf the Internet, you are followed by trackers, called digital exhaust, that collect data on your activity. This data that is very valuable to those trying to sell you something or learn about your interests and habits.

Is Facebook spying on you?

On the episode of Reply All titled, “Is Facebook Spying on you?” hosts investigated an incident where a listener was convinced Facebook listened in on her private conversation through her smartphone microphone. She reported that the same day she brought up the name of an old friend, Facebook suggested that individual as a contact.[6]

After much discussion, the listener learned that the site uses a shadow profile to access the contacts on your phone if that option is selected. The listener reasoned that since Facebook could determine her location was the same as her lunchmate, also a Facebook user, maybe the site decided they were friends and offered each of them friends from the other’s friends lists. She said it is kind of like a bird-of-a-feather-flocks-together offer.

The bottom line is that it’s almost impossible for us to anticipate how congregated (combined) data can be used to predict future behavior, and how that data might be useful to marketers.

Although most of us willingly sign over our private information in exchange for fun content, here are some ways to minimize risk.

  • Turn off the feature that tracks your location and embeds that data in your photos. For iPhone go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone and then unselect Facebook. On Android, go to Settings > Personal > Privacy > Safety > App permissions > Microphone and unselect Facebook.[2]

  • Turn off location services.

  • Avoid giving away private information.

  • Do not open or click on anything that looks suspicious.

  • Use a password generator, which is a software program or web page that will generate a one-time password for you to strengthen your cybersecurity.[8]

These tips and more can be found in my Cybersecurity and Red Flags Supplement a perfect addition to our free Connected Family Screen Agreement.

Thanks to Allie Mattina for clearing Facebook’s name, and providing us with interesting and accurate information. For more information regarding online tracking, take a look at the GKIS article “Sex Traffickers May Use Social Media to Troll Your Child. Start by Turning Off Geotagging” to learn more about how to protect your teen.

Works Cited

[1] Reply All. “Is Facebook Spying on You?” Gimlet, 2 Nov 2017.

[2] Titcomb, James. ” ‘Facebook is Listening to Me’: Why This Conspiracy Theory Refuses to Die.” The Telegraph, 30 Oct 2017.

[3] Haynes, Jessica. “Ways Your Technology is Already Spying on You.” ABC News, 7 Mar 2017.

[4] Koen, Trudy. “Your Social Media Apps are Spying on You; Here’s How to Get Your Privacy Back.” Blackberry, 20 Jun 2016.

[5] Hern, Alex. “Six Ways Your Tech is Spying On You and How to Turn it Off.” The Guardian, 10 Feb 2015.

[6] Reply All. “Year End Extravaganza.” Gimlet, 21 Dec 2017.

[8] Computer Hope. “Password Generator.” Computer Hope, 26 Apr 2017.

Photo Credits

Photo by Kai Brame on Unsplash

Photo by Oliver Thomas Klein on Unsplash

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

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Dr. Tracy Bennett