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It's Possible that the Facebook App is Listening To You, Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Says (theoutline.com) 204

Jon Christian, writing for The Outline: During an appearance before a committee of U.K. lawmakers today, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie breathed new life into longstanding rumors that the Facebook app listens to its users in order to target advertisements. Damian Collins, a member of parliament who chaired the committee, asked whether the Facebook app might listen to what users are discussing and use it to prioritize certain ads.

"That's probably a question for Facebook," Wylie said. But, Wylie said in a meandering reply, it's possible that Facebook and other smartphone apps are listening in for reasons other than speech recognition. Specifically, he said, they might be trying to ascertain what type of environment a user is in in order to "improve the contextual value of the advertising itself. There's audio that could be useful just in terms of, are you in an office environment, are you outside, are you watching TV, what are you doing right now?" Wylie said, without elaborating on how that information could help target ads.

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It's Possible that the Facebook App is Listening To You, Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Says

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  • by geekymachoman ( 1261484 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @03:12AM (#56339375)
    I could've told you that, would be as much credible.

    Call me when you actually confirm that they're listening in (without disclosing it in their terms of use or whatever)
    • by Eluan ( 788868 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @03:42AM (#56339431) Homepage

      I can confirm that I (and close people) have received targeted ads related to stuff we merely TALKED about, with the phones in our pockets.

      In more than one occasion it was awfully obvious that Facebook listens. It's not everyday that someone talks about wanting "red cookware" for her new house and a few minutes later I get spammed with ads for red cookware. This is ridiculous.

      But you don't have to believe me. Even having screenshots of the ads is no proof because I don't record every live conversation I have in a day.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Me too, I recently talked about building a little shed thing to house our bins. Next thing you know she starts seeing ads for bin shed things in her facebook feed. Never been discussed previously in any written form of communication. Never been googled (I'm going to build one not buy one). Only ever discussed once. She sure as hell has never discussed or searched for anything like that, and never seen any ads similar to it before. There's coincidence, but that's too much.

      • I can confirm that I (and close people) have received targeted ads related to stuff we merely TALKED about, with the phones in our pockets.

        I can confirm a similar experience. Not with Facebook (I don't use it), but with Google.

        There have been several eerie instances where Google auto-suggested a search item (based on the first letter or first few letters) that has just been talked about on the phone. This has happened to me, and it has happened to my friends who also have Android phones. No, it was not a common search term, no it did not make sense based on location, past search history, browsing or whatever. If those weren't just very weird c

        • There have been several eerie instances where Google auto-suggested a search item (based on the first letter or first few letters) that has just been talked about on the phone.

          And how do you know this is not just coincidence? If you talked about it it's credible to believe that other people did so as well.

          No, it was not a common search term, no it did not make sense based on location, past search history, browsing or whatever. If those weren't just very weird coincidences (which I find hard to believe), then the only logical explanation was that Google was analyzing the voice conversation.

          How do you know it wasn't common? To be honest I'm HIGHLY dubious that Google is listening to your conversations. While I cannot deny that its a possibility it doesn't make a lot of sense that they could do this without it becoming public knowledge. SO many people would have to keep it a secret that I just don't really buy it.

          Of course if you use Android always remember that

          • And how do you know this is not just coincidence? If you talked about it it's credible to believe that other people did so as well.

            How do you know it wasn't common?

            Well of course it could be a coincidence, but it's a very freaky coincidence...and I don't know 100% that a search term is not common, but I know that it's highly likely (given the particular situations) that it's not, and that when you "normally" search Google with the same few starting letters, in 95% of the cases that I've tried it suggests something else (and in 0% of the cases prior to a given conversation was it giving me what it gave me after the conversation).

            Of course if you use Android always remember that Google makes their money from advertising so any decisions they make will be through that lens. The more information they have about you the more effective they will be at selling advertising so use Android and any other Google products with that in mind. Not saying be paranoid but be aware.

            Of course I'm aware, I just think it's w

            • Well of course it could be a coincidence, but it's a very freaky coincidence..

              Or some other bit of your behavior other than a random conversation might have lead to that result. Some search term or search term related to a different search term. We rarely have conversations in a total (figurative) vacuum. It's pretty easy to forget about other things we've done that may be related or we may not realize are related. I'm not denying the possibility that Google really is listening in but I'd need a LOT more evidence than a single anecdote which in all likelihood is probably just eit

      • This literally happened to me last week.
        I had subscribed to Tidal for a few days and was talking to a colleague about it. He said he had been using a Romanian streaming music service from Vodafone called Zonga. I never looked it up on my phone, we were just talking, he literally said "I was using Zonga but gave it up because it didn't have the music I wanted" and I said "You should try Tidal, I found most my favorite music on it" (we're both metalheads).
        Then we both minded our business until a couple hours

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by thegarbz ( 1787294 )

          Then we both minded our business until a couple hours later I receive a notification on my phone from the Vodafone main app advertising Zonga.

          What's more likely, that your phone is always listening and waiting for the opportunity to sell every conversation you have to someone else, or that an Vodafone knew you just started using Tidal and simply wanted to advertise it's own competing service?

          This is most likely a case of classic false attribution.

          I talked with a friend about kitchen knives and later that day I saw ads for kitchen knives on Facebook. He jumped to the same conclusion .... except that I'd been on websites such as Knivesandtools for

          • by RobinH ( 124750 )
            This is one of those cases where a bunch of citizen scientists could easily perform a whole bunch of repeatable experiments and publish the results and we could know with quite a bit of certainty if this was happening or not. As it stands, people are being lazy about it.
            • You can't repeat the experiment unless you know exactly how the algorithm is working. You might simply miss one trigger and yield false results.

              • Really? Because never has an experiment revealed the underlying unknown law?
                • Experiments start from a series of assumptions, e.g. "this happens, let's find out why".

                • You are correct, but so is the parent. As someone that has reverse engineered proprietary goods and also performed (pseudo) primary research, I can tell you that there's a difference in experimental practice.

                  And ergh, I don't mean to 'appeal to authority' here, but I don't have energy to type a considerate response. Take my message with an accordingly large grain of salt.
              • by gnick ( 1211984 )

                You might simply miss one trigger and yield false results.

                So what? Run the experiment many times with different inputs. You only need one success and can ignore all your failures.

                • So how do you differentiate success from a false positive? Maybe a false positive is what happened to me.

                  • by gnick ( 1211984 )

                    How do you ever? I once stopped at a business on my way home from work and, later that evening, Facebook asked me about my experience at the adjacent business. I'd never heard of that business until Facebook asked me about it, but I was briefly parked in front. To me, that's a strong indication that FB was using my location. It COULD be a false positive, but it seems unlikely. Anyway, I said you'd need one hit. That's to convince yourself and maybe share as evidence on /., like I just did. You'd want to get

                  • by RobinH ( 124750 )
                    It's very likely not a false positive if it happens well above the level of chance and is repeatable by other people.
          • I had used other streaming services in the past, and Tidal had been installed for a couple weeks. I also had been using PCRadio extensively, for at least a couple hours daily,

        • You put up with ads in notifications from an app on your phone?

          That app would immediately be uninstalled on my phone. I have had a few free apps do this, exactly once, then they were gone.

          • System app, preinstalled by carrier. Can't uninstall. i can disable it but it re-enables itself every time a patch comes along.
            I have this nagging feeling I'm fighting my phone. It's a company-issued phone so I'm stuck with it until June.

      • I spoke about a phone feature where calls you receive but don't have saved in your phone should be able to come up with their contact from Google Business (Mechanics etc) and BAM it came out a few months later.
        I also talked to friends about creating a proxy for email images so all images are downloaded and spammers know they don't know which images were downloaded by real emails and BAM it came out a few months later.
      • Ive had this happen with pandora, no targeted ad, as i essentially have an adblocker for it (pandora downloader) but i have, multiple times in the past been telling somebody about a song i heard, or that i think they would like. and it has played next(on a station it really shouldnt have) or be one of the first songs i hear when i do listen. i have written it off as me being crazy. but ive had other people tell me the same thing has happened to them.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@world3.nBLUEet minus berry> on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @07:48AM (#56340017) Homepage Journal

        If this were possible it would be an incredible technical feat.

        Phone batteries don't provide enough energy to constantly record audio and look for speech, then transmit it back to Facebook or do speech recognition on the device. Not to mention the effect on your data allowance.

        The way those always on "hay Siri" type things work is to have a special ultra low power chip that recognizes just "hay" and then wakes the phone to process the rest, with an appreciable effect on battery life.

        I think more likely is that they do a couple of things. Firstly they are really good at connecting you with your close friend's desire to buy red cookware, and the app noticed that you were near each other with the usual location services so there is a fair chance you might be interested in red cookware too now. Creepy as hell still but based on established, practical techniques.

        The other thing they could be doing is a little bit of Shazam style audio recognition. Shazam is an app that listens to a song and tells you what it is. Google has a similar feature on the Pixel 2 that uses audio fingerprint data stored on the phone, so it doesn't need to transmit any audio. Facebook probably only care about fingerprinting a small number of different TV/radio ads and detecting them when the app is open. Again, that's feasible with current tech and won't completely destroy your battery life, or give the game away by transmitting chunks of audio data periodically.

        • by Uberbah ( 647458 )

          Yeah, sounds like when parents get a diagnosis that their child is autistic and blame it on the flu vaccine they had last fall. Correlation, causation, etc.

        • Third possibility: out of a billion or so ad impressions (say 1 million slashdot readers who use Facebook multiplied by a thousand ad impressions per reader over the years), there are a few random ads which just by coincidence happened to match a recent conversation. And when this topic came up, those handful of users which experienced this coincidence self-selected themselves [wikipedia.org] and posted their experience.

          In the past, people attributed this sort of thing to psychic or paranormal ability. More recently,
      • by adosch ( 1397357 )

        Absolutely agree. I have noticed this for YEARS when we've talked about something, then we went to our devices, we will see targeted ads minutes and hours to follow, but more importantly, there was a topic we wanted to use some internet search resource to validate something in our conversation, and even your default search engine shows that very F topic as the auto-fill suggestion as you type.

        I feel a bit too tin-foil-hatted all the time, but seriously why shouldn't I? And how F helpless is everyone now?

      • by sinij ( 911942 )
        You should also consider that whatever Facebook was showing you, convinced both you and your friend to talk about red cookware.

        To give you a data point, I talked exactly zero times in my life with anyone about red cookware.
      • I get these a lot and I don't have the facebook app, or any other social media app. I think what is going on is we tend to talk about things we have done searches for.

        Today, most of the ads on Slashdot (mobile, of course) were for Logic Supply industrial computers. I just bought a computer from them last week and had been researching it the past couple weeks. Previously I get a lot of ads for a specific Olympus Camera... that I also already own.

        In fact most of the ads I see are for things I already own. I t

      • That's nothing.
        I once said out load "I have to take a crap". Then I did.
        Then I saw an ad for toilet paper on Walmart.com.
        No way that could have been a coincidence.
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re "would be as much credible."
      Its an old idea.
      From December 4, 2012.
      http://washington.cbslocal.com... [cbslocal.com]
    • Log into fb on your old mobile. Put it in a closet, next to another device playing:

      The local foreign language station-
      Niche podcasts-
      Consumer product reviews-

      Wait a week, then pretend it's not listening...... while presented with ads for niche tech product related podcasts in Spanish.

      Easy to verify.

      Still not tracking? You're either dumb, or paid. At this point denial just makes you an asshole. ............and for the record, they are ALL doing this. It's just the way the web works now. Conform, or adapt.

      • I remember about ten years ago, there was a story on /. about how some cop suggested putting video cameras in people's houses in order to catch them and everyone was freaking out and that could never happen. In another generation people will be expecting and even wanting this. All watched over by machines of loving grace.

        I guess if you don't want to believe in imaginary god, they build a real one.

        • Another generation? The Amazon and Google pucks, doorbells, thermostats and smoke detectors all have cameras besides the actual security and baby cameras that stream directly to the cloud.

      • Easy to verify.

        It is, yes. But you and I both know that you haven't tried it, nor will anyone else who is reading your comment. Conspiracy theories are way too fun to risk actually testing.

    • Facebook and google are spying on us all ??
      No way that can be true !

    • I could've told you that, would be as much credible. Call me when you actually confirm that they're listening in (without disclosing it in their terms of use or whatever)

      Not that large corporations don't make colossal mistakes, but the negative exposure from being caught using such an exploit would be very nearly a death knell even for Google or Facebook.

      Folks are waking up a bit and even leaving Facebook over the latest compromised data scandal. Facebook users voluntarily surrender petabytes of personal data already, and Google mines more than enough advertising ore from your searches... it seems unlike any entity (except your three letter agencies) would have the chutzpah

    • by Zorro ( 15797 )

      http://freefall.purrsia.com/ff3200/fc03101.htm

  • They are already doing it, for sure.
    Use the browser, you insensitive app clod.

  • And can it tell the difference between my speech and that "Cheech and Chong" album I was listening to? Oh, look. An advertisement for a marijuana dispensary.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Considering what the NSA and GCHQ had for decades globally?
      Voice prints would create the maths around every voice and what keywords got used. The album would not be the main voice long term.
  • by hcs_$reboot ( 1536101 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @03:48AM (#56339443)
    Would that be true or not, it became so common to just store user data, today to target advertisements ; but who can say to what purpose that data is to be used tomorrow?
  • by nagora ( 177841 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @04:50AM (#56339607)

    Wylie is a bit of a known nutter, so it's worth taking his word with some salt. He admits to stealing the same data from CA that he claims they should have had, when he left the company in 2014. So he's not really up to date or in the clear himself.

    The real CA work was done by Carole Cadwalladr; Wylie was a useful source of contacts more than anything, as I read it.

    The problem with the story as it stands is that many outlets are conflating intent with actual achievements and it's worth remembering that everyone involved at the CA side are huge bullshit-artists and absolutely not above promising to fix anything and pocketing the fee regardless of whether they actually can deliver or not.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @06:16AM (#56339785)

    This is an interesting thread of anecdotes about FB possibly listening in to conversations or phone calls, an anecdote being a data point that support the other guy's hypothesis. So why not test the possibility by dropping honeypot terms into daily conversation? We don't even have to wait around for a formal study, because such a finding would be a major coup for any tech journalist willing to devote a week to trying this out. Under iOS at least, any app using the microphone without asking permission first is violating the TOS.

    • by EvilSS ( 557649 )
      Unless they found a way around it (and really violated the TOS) both Android and iOS require permissions before the OS will allow apps to access the mic. In the case of iOS when apps that do have permissions and attempt to use it in the background, iOS shows a big red banner alerting you that the mic is active and telling you specifically which app is using it.
  • by CODiNE ( 27417 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @07:58AM (#56340043) Homepage

    Last year I met someone for the first time and didn't get her contact info. About 10 minutes later I get a glide connection request from her. Hmmmm... ok. She must've asked one of my friends there, so I accept. Later in person I ask just curious how she got my number, she insists I got hers and made the request without asking her. What?? We go back and forth a little on this til we sort of tentatively agree the app must've spied on us when we met. She had her doubts for a while but no longer thinks I'm a creep.

    • by dj245 ( 732906 )

      Last year I met someone for the first time and didn't get her contact info. About 10 minutes later I get a glide connection request from her. Hmmmm... ok. She must've asked one of my friends there, so I accept. Later in person I ask just curious how she got my number, she insists I got hers and made the request without asking her. What?? We go back and forth a little on this til we sort of tentatively agree the app must've spied on us when we met. She had her doubts for a while but no longer thinks I'm a creep.

      Great job keeping cool, creep.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      So how did you arrange this meeting? Phone call or email or text message? And did either of you put anything in your calendar about it? Did either of you post something about just meeting someone on Facebook afterwards?

      Facebook does use location data, so it knows you two were in the same place at the same time. But there are plenty of other ways they could have got this information, all equally creepy but more technically feasible.

      • by CODiNE ( 27417 )

        Met her in person at a regular religious function. Her first time there. We had no direct contact or information shared except many people in common there. Though I've suspected glide lies about "So and so added you as a friend" to initiate connections, this is the closest to proof I've experienced.

  • I asked Alexa if Facebook listens to every word I say without me knowing, she said no.
    • by sinij ( 911942 )

      I asked Alexa if Facebook listens to every word I say without me knowing, she said no.

      In not so distant future, when Google and Amazon cement their hold on being conduit for all information, such approach won't be considered stupid. At that point these companies will be able to dictate what is and sell to the highest bidder the truth.

  • The original Facebook app stole everyone's contacts, and those it couldn't steal, it deleted.

    Anyone who runs a Facebook app on their phone literally deserves whatever happens to them. They are literally helping destroy democracy.

  • The app asks permission for the microphone. Why do you think it needs that? Fucking idiots.

    • by jerk ( 38494 )

      It could need it for a number of reasons. Taking videos with sound, using speech-to-text, etc. I still haven't given it access to the microphone since I use the built-in camera for video and photos and don't use speech-to-text, but there are legitimate reasons for it.

  • I've been eyeing a new table saw for a while, and settled on the one I want a couple weeks ago.

    Although I've obviously talked about it with my wife (I mean, it's a $500 purchase, not something you just do without talking about it) quite a bit, she has never, ever, not once looked up anything about table saws whatsoever on her phone (iPhone 6s) or laptop (MacBook Pro). Sure, I have on my devices but they are not tied together at all. Separate accounts, separate iCloud, all that. I'm not on a single social me

    • Not sure you need an evesdropping app to explain that.

      The fact that you are married is a public matter. If you've ever seen a background check it even shows people are you "associated" with: friends, ex-girl friends, etc.

  • by X10 ( 186866 )

    Who in their right mind would install the Facebook app?

  • Why is everybody conjecturing? Anybody with an Android phone (better with PrivacyGuard) can install the app and watch for requests to use the microphone. Get the PrivacyGuard data to logcat and run grep on it.

    • Does the system log when the microphone is being used? Answer depends on who customized and built your firmware.

  • by preflex ( 1840068 ) on Wednesday March 28, 2018 @04:42PM (#56343351)

    Caution: The linked article contains nasty animated ads which evade uBlock Origin's filters. View at the risk of your own mental health.

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