For many people, Facebook represents a necessary evil. Today's "connected world" demands that anybody with anything to say or promote to the world needs to step up onto a blue box called Facebook, so that they may be better heard. And Facebook, in common with many other Internet companies, relies on advertising for a significant proportion of their revenue. This means that Facebook is interested in obtaining as much information about you as it can, to better serve you with adverts – or to sell on the information to companies who know you have a higher than average chance of responding.
We've seen something of an information arms race between various companies all trying to obtain information about their userbase. Facebook gathers information from our use of the official application and the browser; a few weeks ago, a story broke whereby a professor of mass communications, Kelli Burns, at the University of South Florida experimented with Facebook by talking about a topic within earshot of a device to see if the and service application would present related adverts. The service appeared to recognise the topics of discussion and did present adverts, which implied that the application was using the device microphone to listen in on conversations. After this story broke, we saw numerous similar stories circulating the Internet whereby people have discovered that Facebook appears to be listening to conversations going on around it.
There is other circumstantial evidence, too. The official Facebook application is a notorious battery, performance and data hog on mobile devices and has the microphone permission. Furthermore, the official Facebook app uses a hybrid cloud / on-device model, which means Facebook can roll out improvements at their side without requiring an update on the device. Of course, having ready access to cloud computing right behind the application means that power could be used to interpret conversations taking place around the device.
Last Thursday, Facebook issued a blog post to assure users and it reiterated the sentiment in a message to the source: "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." It also added that it requires users to explicitly agree to microphone use. We already understand that Facebook listens in to background sound when posting a status update, and it can recognise music tracks or television shows, but this service does require the user to opt-in. Facebook have also changed their advertising policy to include both users and non-Facebook users. The cynical amongst us might assume that this is because their microphone antics cannot easily differentiate between user and non-user voices.
Perhaps Facebook did collect information from microphones but has, following the breaking news, suspended or stopped this activity? Perhaps we are seeing a number of coincidences across the Internet whereby people have also searched for a topic of conversation and Facebook has picked up on this? Whatever the truth, do we now take it as written that Facebook is not listening to us?