Shhhh! Facebook is listening

The great privacy farce continues

Facebook wants to hear what you have to say. Literally.

Professor Kelli Burns claims to have tested a hunch that the social media giant's mobile application is listening to everything you say and providing ads based on that content, and discovered it was true.

The mass communication prof at the University of South Florida, with the help of telly journalists, has verified the fact that Facebook's mobile app grants itself access to your microphone by talking about a holiday she wanted to take.

"I'm really interested in going on an African safari. I think it'd be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps," she said out loud with her phone in hand. According to the NBC report, under a minute later, the first story in her Facebook feed was about a safari. And a car ad soon appeared on her page.

Of course, the "evidence" is purely anecdotal, and as soon as the report spread, Burns has walked back her claim, saying that she may have been searching online for the same things she said out loud – in which case Facebook may be reacting to other data it has picked up on her habits.

It may also be worth noting that before Professor Burns became an academic, she spent seven years in corporate marketing and the course she teaches is the "principles of public relations."

Access all areas

Facebook's app access to a phone's microphone is fact, and, critically, it now appears to be turned on by default, meaning you have to dig into your phone's innards to disable it.

This is not the first time Facebook has faced this charge: last year it was also accused of listening to people and selling ads in response. It said at the time that users had to turn the microphone on. But that may have changed subsequently, since most users find their microphones are on as a default for the Facebook app.

Facebook says this about its use of the microphone: "We 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."

It also points out that it doesn't record conversations – although it doesn't need to actually record conversations, of course, to act on them and relay "relevant ads." And last year it claimed that listening was limited only to when you are writing a Facebook update.

In response to Burns' report and other similar anecdotes reported online, the company has denied using what you say to place ads or impact your news feed. It said: "Facebook does not use microphone audio to inform advertising or News Feed stories in any way. Businesses are able to serve relevant ads based on people's interests and other demographic information, but not through audio collection."

Of course, it is possible to parse that official response and question what Facebook's definitions of "inform" and "collection" are.


Unlike other better-known voice services such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Echo, Facebook has given itself far greater control over what it can do with your microphone. Its explanations also follow a familiar trend of Facebook responses: vague policies, followed by clear denials, followed by a new set of policies.

Apple's Siri assistant can listen to you any time, but there are three significant differences between it and Facebook.

First, it waits for its "wake word" – in this case "Hey, Siri." Second, it is turned off by default. You have to activate it and then carry out four voice tests before it turns on. And third, it only works when plugged in (although Apple has reportedly considered turning off the plugged-in restriction).

Likewise, Amazon's Echo technology listens for a wake word before carrying out any analysis – in its case, "Alexa." Amazon is also upfront about its collection of audio and allows you to delete recordings plus play around with settings.

A turn off

Facebook, on the other hand, gives itself access to your phone's mic – seemingly by default despite earlier claims – and is capable of always listening and does not tell you what it does with the information it receives.

None of this should comes as a surprise to people: Facebook has repeatedly given itself access to people's personal data and then begged forgiveness afterwards.

It continually tweaks its privacy settings, requiring people to keep making changes to prevent the company from sharing the information you provide. And whenever there is an uproar, it announces small changes that require people to actively change their settings again. Most don't.

Facebook claims the feature is good for users because it makes it easier and faster for you to post about what's going on around you. If that's a persuasive argument for you, continue on, but for everyone else the answer is to go into your phone's settings and manually prevent your Facebook app from accessing your microphone.

How to turn it off

iOS: Settings > Facebook > Settings > Microphone.

Android: Settings > Privacy and emergency > App permissions. Find Facebook and turn off mic access. ®

Other stories you might like

  • VMware claims ‘bare-metal’ performance from virtualized Nvidia GPUs
    Is... is that why Broadcom wants to buy it?

    The future of high-performance computing will be virtualized, VMware's Uday Kurkure has told The Register.

    Kurkure, the lead engineer for VMware's performance engineering team, has spent the past five years working on ways to virtualize machine-learning workloads running on accelerators. Earlier this month his team reported "near or better than bare-metal performance" for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) and Mask R-CNN — two popular machine-learning workloads — running on virtualized GPUs (vGPU) connected using Nvidia's NVLink interconnect.

    NVLink enables compute and memory resources to be shared across up to four GPUs over a high-bandwidth mesh fabric operating at 6.25GB/s per lane compared to PCIe 4.0's 2.5GB/s. The interconnect enabled Kurkure's team to pool 160GB of GPU memory from the Dell PowerEdge system's four 40GB Nvidia A100 SXM GPUs.

    Continue reading
  • Nvidia promises annual datacenter product updates across CPU, GPU, and DPU
    Arm one year, x86 the next, and always faster than a certain chip shop that still can't ship even one standalone GPU

    Computex Nvidia's push deeper into enterprise computing will see its practice of introducing a new GPU architecture every two years brought to its CPUs and data processing units (DPUs, aka SmartNICs).

    Speaking on the company's pre-recorded keynote released to coincide with the Computex exhibition in Taiwan this week, senior vice president for hardware engineering Brian Kelleher spoke of the company's "reputation for unmatched execution on silicon." That's language that needs to be considered in the context of Intel, an Nvidia rival, again delaying a planned entry to the discrete GPU market.

    "We will extend our execution excellence and give each of our chip architectures a two-year rhythm," Kelleher added.

    Continue reading
  • Now Amazon puts 'creepy' AI cameras in UK delivery vans
    Big Bezos is watching you

    Amazon is reportedly installing AI-powered cameras in delivery vans to keep tabs on its drivers in the UK.

    The technology was first deployed, with numerous errors that reportedly denied drivers' bonuses after malfunctions, in the US. Last year, the internet giant produced a corporate video detailing how the cameras monitor drivers' driving behavior for safety reasons. The same system is now apparently being rolled out to vehicles in the UK. 

    Multiple camera lenses are placed under the front mirror. One is directed at the person behind the wheel, one is facing the road, and two are located on either side to provide a wider view. The cameras are monitored by software built by Netradyne, a computer-vision startup focused on driver safety. This code uses machine-learning algorithms to figure out what's going on in and around the vehicle.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022