This is a true story, and I’m outing myself for the greater good. Facebook heard me fart.
I have long suspected that Facebook’s advertising was intrusive, going beyond the usual Internet goings-on of search histories, and products perused. I mean, I’ve long acquiesced to the idea of cookies and re-targeting, but lately I’d started to notice that ads were popping up on my phone for things I had only talked about. I chalked it up to coincidence. Maybe it was just a fluke that I had talked about sore muscles after a run and seen an ad for a foam roller. My Facebook page likes alone would have outed me as a running crazy long ago. But then the ads seemed to get a little too targeted for comfort, until finally the writing was literally on my wall.
Here’s how it went down. I was in the kitchen doing my usual thing (dancing and cooking) when a little squeaker slipped out. The little squeaker quickly escalated to a level 4 SBD situation, so I, very considerately, alerted my husband to the situation. “Hey, don’t come in here. I just farted.” Then a little later, I saw this ad pop into my feed:
And that’s when it hit me: Facebook IS listening to me! Okay, so maybe my phone didn’t hear me fart, per se, but it heard me say that I farted, right? I haven’t conducted a test to see if it could pick up a fart and then serve me the same ad. Perhaps after my next bean burrito night? Anyway, one panic-ridden Internet search later, and I found this article: Is Facebook Secretly Listening to You to Target Ads? Conclusion: an unofficial, unconfirmed, though user-tested, yes. I am far from the first person to make this observation and Facebook has taken a lot of heat for this allegation, vehemently denying that advertising is generated from any sort of listening. There was, however, an added opt-in feature that would allow you to use Facebook to identify songs and TV shows for post content. Most of the information I could find on this, however, is a little dated. There’s this article on Snopes from 2014, Facebook Listens, and this post from Marketing Land (assume whatever bias you will) from this past fall (2015) also claiming ads are not generated from audio.
The opt-in feature is identified and detailed in Facebook’s help pages. You can read more about it, including how to turn it on/off, in this section about music and TV identification. As written on Facebook:
Does Facebook record conversations when it identifies the things I’m listening to or watching?
No, we don’t record your conversations. If you choose to turn on this feature, we’ll only use your microphone to identify the things you’re listening to or watching based on the music and TV matches we’re able to identify. If this feature is turned on, it’s only active when you’re writing a status update.
This begs the question: how would Facebook filter out songs and TV from other noise, which is to say that while I’m not audio tech genius, it seems to me that other noises would be impossible not to capture? Upon further investigation, this feature is only supposed to turn on when you tap to write a new post, i.e. the feature only identifies when you tell it to, or at least that’s how it’s outlined by Facebook. This option was not available when I tried to see if it was operating in my account, so maybe there have been enough complaints about it that it is now defunct. I flipped through all my apps to see which had been inadvertently granted access to my microphone. I had denied Instagram access. My pictures, they don’t talk, y’all. Why would Instagram need access to my microphone? It didn’t appear that I could grant or deny the Facebook app itself this permission, or at least not in my settings panel, but then I found the culprit. Somehow in downloading the Messenger app permission had been granted to my microphone. I immediately turned this off, with a forceful swipe, if I do say so myself.
Have I been interested in, and actively searching for, information concerning Ayurveda in the past? You bet, and with some frequency. But the whole farting thing hit a little too close for comfort. Could it have been a freaky coincidence? Sure, but I’m proceeding with much more caution and awareness than before.
The moral of this story is that if you need to have a super secret conversation, play it safe. Go down into a canyon and leave your phone in the car. If you fart in the woods, your phone might hear it, so maybe wait for a big gust of wind or a falling tree.