According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, everybody can relax with regard to rumors that Facebook spies on its users via their handset's microphone. A company spokesperson has said that would require far too many resources to accomplish – more than even the NSA has access to. Beyond that, in the connected world, listening in on verbal communications – or even SMS-based communications – isn't really necessary. Instead, the advertising that supports the site is targeted at users based on a complex network of information from online activity and mobile activity. Unfortunately, that's not likely to assuage any concerns about the process since it isn't generally well understood by those outside of the advertising industry. Moreover, many users are still bound to be concerned by the practice and possible privacy implications.
With regard to how things actually work, it may be best described by example. To a certain degree, every smartphone or computer tracks user activity. That can be done in an anonymized fashion or with collected data being tied into a user account. At its most basic, if a user checks out information on a new brand of cereal on YouTube and then drives over to their local grocery store, the system will make a connection between those two things. The user in question might then begin to see more advertisements for that cereal or related products when they're browsing the web. With that said, the process is much more complex than that. Use of a phone number to verify a loyalty card, for example, can link a transaction back to an online account-driven site like Facebook. Moreover, conversations on social media and other information users typically share online combine to form a full picture of a given person. That information allows a profile to be built up that includes likes, dislikes, interests, and contextual information.
The process isn't necessarily nefarious either, at least on the surface, although it is very consumption-driven. It's also not limited to Facebook. Unlike with random advertising, targeted ads can actually be very useful since they provide information that actually has some relevance to an individual. That doesn't mean it's not going to put some people off but advertising also serves a purpose to content providers across several industries. It effectively allows content to be delivered and providers to be paid for their work without end-users or consumers needing to pay for the content. For those who want greater privacy, there really isn't any complete answer aside from abandoning technology entirely. Having said that, there are small steps that can be taken to at least limit the collection of data – such as turning off permissions for some applications in a handset's settings menu or turning off location data entirely. Those won't necessarily stop all collection entirely but it may at least provide some peace of mind for users of ad-driven services.