Something wicked this way comes (through your microphone)
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. [Knocking]
Open locks, Whoever knocks!
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1
It started with a chair. A set of chairs, to be precise.
My boyfriend and I were enjoying Sunday lunch at one of our favourite spots, Michael Nadra, a bright and friendly little restaurant off the canal. The beauty of Michael Nadra is that we can typically get in last minute when, as usual, we’ve failed to book something before Sunday morning when all the pubs are full.
It was one of the last days of summer and we were eating outside, deep in discussion about the need to kit out the flat we’d just moved into. Enjoying our cocktails and musing on home furnishings, Chris pointed to the chairs on the patio.
‘What do you think of these?’ he asked. ‘They’re pretty cool.’
They were indeed. So cool, in fact, that we spent the next five minutes discussing said chairs: if they would work indoors, whether they might be stackable, and even if the staff knew where we might get some. (They didn’t.)
After enjoying our ill-planned and boozy lunch, we headed home, to do all those Sunday things that are less fun than lunch, but that you know you should do because you won’t have time on Monday. A few hours later I was sitting on the couch, mindlessly looking at Facebook, and – to my abject horror – was face-to-face with the chairs from lunch.
‘Holy shit, Chris!’ I cried, as if something truly heinous was happening in my hand, ‘look at this.’
I was still thinking about this brazenly placed ad a few days later, increasingly annoyed and also convinced targeted ads were the modern day version of a home invasion. How in the world, in the absence of searching for them online – or even researching kitchen chairs in general – did Facebook know exactly what chairs we had sat in and discussed purchasing at lunch? How the %$&£ did the Philippe Starck for Kartell Masters Chair in Black end up in a suggested post on my Facebook feed?
I felt icky. And mad. Somehow the endless ads suggesting wedding dresses (I’m not engaged, but I guess social media thinks it’s time I settle down), active wear, and Botox hadn’t managed to piss me off, but this chair thing made me feel uncommonly livid and violated. Profile me if you must, Facebook, but how dare you take an interest in what I put my butt on.
Despite my day job in healthcare, I’m a researcher at heart, and in the wake of the ‘chair incident’, there was nothing I wanted more than good old fashioned vengeance through science. For the next week-and-a-half, I paid attention to the conversations I had within earshot of my phone and took screenshots of the ads I was served. This is what happened:
(It is worth noting that in each of the examples below, which occurred over the course of 10 days, I did not perform online searches for any of the items or services mentioned. Any ads I was served after searching explicitly for items online – and there were plenty – have been omitted. With the exception of the second example, which is in reference to a conversation held via text, all other examples relate only to information that could have been gathered via conversations I had within earshot of my mobile phone.)
- On Wednesday night, I was lying on the couch in my sweaty gym clothes, when Chris said he liked me in my workout leggings. I smiled, said thanks, and mentally noted to wear them again (even if I wasn’t working out). I also mentioned they were Lululemon.
- Result: The next day in the evening, a Lululemon ad was the first ad in my Facebook feed.
- Verdict: I get a lot of ads for gym gear, and Lululemon ones are a fairly common for me, so I chalked this one up to chance.
- In a Whatsapp message on Friday, a male friend sent a message asking how to go about hooking up with girls in California. I said a lot of things had changed since I’d left seven years ago, but I was sure Tinder would probably do the trick. I mentioned this to Chris when I came home that night, saying a friend had asked and that I was clearly old and a bit out of the loop.
- Result: The next morning I received a sponsored ad for the Sunday Times with the headline: ‘What single men really think about Tinder’s hook-up culture’
- Verdict: Hm. Starting to get a little weird, but potentially still random. I definitely don’t feel digitally violated, so I give Facebook the benefit of the doubt again.
- On Saturday, we spent all. damn. day. in John Lewis looking for lamps to continue kitting out aforementioned flat. It was exhausting, it wasn’t particularly fun, and it took an abnormally long time to track down two bedside lamps, shades, and bulbs, after which I needed two abnormally large gin and tonics.
- Result: The next morning, a sponsored ad appeared on my Newsfeed from Bothy Blue where, apparently, ‘New Lighting’ had ‘Just Landed’.
- Verdict: I am no longer giving Facebook the benefit of the doubt; this is creepy and I want my Nokia 3310 back.
- I rolled into work on Monday, still exhausted from my weekend lamp-hunting experience. This was also the day my friends and I decided to go to Vietnam for Christmas and New Years. I spent a good deal of the day telling any of my colleagues that would listen that I was trying to eat healthily for the next 7 weeks. ‘Please feel free to violently knock any bread items out of my hands,’ I said. When they balked or kindly tried to looked confused, I explained my logic behind fitting into my favourite bathing suit, while quietly trying to figure out how I was going to make it through the holidays without mulled wine or mince pies.
- Result: Over the next two days, my Facebook churned out four distinct ads for weight loss programmes and one for swimwear.
- Verdict: Shit has officially gotten weird, and I officially have no semblance of privacy left in my life.
- Later that week, feeling the financial sting of the holiday flights I’d booked, I found myself back on the couch after work, lamenting to Chris the sorry state of my bank account. This inspired what has become a familiar conversational loop, wherein we cover the evils of capitalism, the exorbitant price of living in London, and the fact that we’d have to move if we ever wanted to buy a house. In the course of the conversation, it also came up that neither of us has a pension. After a few minutes spent on this topic, and the historically unfair advantage of previous generations when it came to savings and retirement, we went to bed, a bit depressed, but resigned to our fate to work into our 90s
- Result: The next night, I was served a sponsored ad for PensionBee, a clean little app that claims to give you ‘Complete control and clarity over your pension.’ (Or, in my case, just reminds you that you don’t have one.)
- Verdict: FFS.
- By Friday, still stoically clinging to my health-kick, I met my friend Geralyn for a coffee in the afternoon. We talked about work for a bit, but the conversation soon turned to books: audio books in particular. Geralyn loves listening to books, which means her hands are free to do something else. I told her I wasn’t an auditory learner, so audio books generally didn’t work for me, but I was a bit jealous of people who could use them.
- Result: A sponsored ad for Audible, an audio book retailer, appeared in my newsfeed the next day.
- Verdict: Okay, now you’re just *%&$ing with me, Facebook. (Also, thank god this is over.)
So what exactly is going on?
Short answer: I don’t know, but it’s not good.
Facebook has repeatedly insisted it does not ‘listen to conversations’ through its mobile app. The ability to use audio gathered from users’ microphones, however, was publicly announced back in 2014, when Facebook rolled out a new feature that could gather and process users’ audio data to identify what was happening around them, such as identifying TV shows or songs playing in background.
In 2016, Professor Kelli Burns was interviewed on NBC and proposed that Facebook might have been listening to her conversation based on the corresponding advertisements she was served afterwards. (Burns had shared that she wanted to go on a safari; within a few hours, a story about an African safari and an ad for a car rental company appeared in her feed.) Burns’s spot prompted a flurry of similar stories, with users demanding to know whether Facebook was listening in.
Facebook issued the following statement in June 2016:
- Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about. We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.
However, similar allegations were raised again in 2017, with Facebook users noticing and sharing en masse their stories of ads creepily relating to private conversations they had had. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of advertising, again issued a public statement (this time on Twitter, where all truth lies) that Facebook did not ‘listen’ to audio obtained from users’ smartphone microphones in order to serve them ads.
While I don’t claim to understand the intricacies by which Facebook processes audio data from its users and how this is utilised, there are a few things I do know. 1) I know that Facebook can and has been accessing audio from users’ phone microphones via its app since 2014. 2) I know that after talking about very specific things this week, such as changing my eating habits, I was hit with a barrage of associated weight loss ads on Facebook. And a pension ad. And a bikini ad. And an audiobook ad. And a lamp ad. (Not to mention the damn chair ad that got me into this experiment in the first place.) 3) I know this is a really common experience. BCC recently published this story of readers sharing times when it seemed their phone was listening in, based on the ads they were served.
I’m typically not a fan of hard boundaries and I’ve never been one to indulge in conspiracy theories. However, while I don’t mind seeing things that are ‘relevant’ to me, I draw the line at feeling as if I’m being spied on. And when an instinct is backed by 10 days of experimentation that confirm my suspicion – then a boundary is necessary.
If the creepy ad factor is getting to you as well, here are a few ideas to avoid your phone accessing the microphone on your mobile device:
- Turn your microphone settings off
- Settings > Privacy > Microphone > Facebook / Facebook Messenger > Off
- You can do this with other apps that don’t need access to your audio as well, for extra security.
- If you want a blanket ban of your audio, and you’re still lucky enough to have a microphone jack, find a cheap or broken pair of headphones and cut off everything but the microphone jack. Whenever you’re not using your headphones, insert the dummy jack.