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 acquaintance? Internet users have started to question their privacy on certain sites and repeatedly, these sites have denied any form of spying. Are they being truthful or are they going behind our backs and hiding in the shadows of the Internet?

One notorious spying story includes the one about the couple talking about getting a cat and then all of the sudden, ads for cat food and other cat items start appearing on their social media sites (Reply All, 2017). Or the 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 retargetting, when you shop for an item online and for the next several days you’re served up the same items 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 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 technology to listen in on our conversations (Titcomb, 2017). 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 same thing appearing constantly, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (Titcomb, 2017). In other words, it could be just your imagination and its truly coincidence.

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 the microphone to gain personal information that is valuable to marketers (Haynes, 2017). For example, smart connected toys like Talking Barbie are on the market and parents are becoming concerned (Haynes, 2017). These toys not only record what they hear then store that data on a server, but they can also respond with one of 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 merchandizing. Smart speakers like Siri, Alexa, Echo, and Google home are also examples of smart, connected appliances. Recent estimates are that Alexa has over 10,000 skills available.

Smart watches also raise privacy concerns (Haynes, 2017). For example, the Apple Health app on iPhones and Google Fit can track and collect data on your location wherever you take your phone (Koen, 2016). Also, the ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ feature on Facebook or other social media sites provide important marketing data that allow those sites to more specifically target you (Hern, 2015). 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, which can see what you are doing on the Internet and is installed on millions of websites (Reply All, 2017). Pixel collects data about your online behavior which can be used to target you for ads or other social media content (Reply All, 2017). In fact, whenever you surf the Internet you are followed by trackers, called digital exhaust, that collect data on your activity, data that is very valuable to those trying to sell you something or learn about your interests and habits.

On an episode of Reply All, hosts investigated an incident where a listener was convinced Facebook listened in on a conversation she had; because the same day she brought up the name of an old friend, Facebook suggested that individual as a contact (Reply All, 2017). After much discussion, the listener learned that the site uses a “shadow profile” to access your contacts on your phone to gain information (Reply All, 2017). In other words, if you allow the option, Facebook will use your device to gain information like phone numbers, names and addresses of people in your phone contacts (Reply All, 2017). Furthermore, 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 acquaintances and offered each of them friends from the other’s friends lists, kind of like a bird of feather who flocks together offer. The bottom line is that it’s almost impossible for us to anticipate how congregated 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, there are some ways to minimize risk.

  • Turn off the feature that tracks your location and embeds that data on 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, (Titcomb, 2017).

  • 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 (Computer Hope, 2017).

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

Computer Hope. “Password Generator.” Computer Hope, 26 Apr 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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