When asked by committee chairman Damian Collins about what his thoughts were on the speculation that Facebook was doing this Wylie said that while it was “probably a question for Facebook.” companies, not just Facebook, could potentially record background audio to identify the kind of environment they were in e.g. a quiet living room, workplace etc, and then tailor ads to suite those environments.
Here’s the full transcript:
Damian Collins MP:
There’s been various speculation about the fact that Facebook can, through the Facebook app on your smartphone can listen in to what people are talking about, discussing and use that to prioritise advertising as well. Other people have said that they don’t think it’s possible and that it’s just that the Facebook system is so good at predicting that it can just guess. Do you have a view on that at all?
My understanding, that’s probably a question for Facebook, but just on the comments about using audio and processing audio, you can use it for, my understanding about how generally companies use it so not just Facebook but generally other apps that pull audio is for environmental context so for example if you have a television playing versus if you’re in a busy place where there’s lots of people talking versus something that sounds like a work environment, it’s not to say that they’re listening to what you’re saying so it’s not natural language processing, that would actually be quite hard to scale, but it’s to understand the environmental context of where you are to improve contextual value of the advertising itself, but it’s probably a question for Facebook.
Could Facebook actually be recording you through the app?
Facebook has always denied that it records audio through apps in order to deliver ads and when asked by HuffPost UK it provided us with this statement that it gave back in 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.”
It’s not clear if Wylie’s speaking from direct knowledge of the matter and indeed there are some pretty significant technical hurdles that any company would have to overcome if it was to utilise a feature such as background microphone recording.
Late last year Antonio García Martínez, who had previously headed up Facebook’s monetisation teams, wrote an op-ed in Wired titled: “Facebook’s Not Listening Through Your Phone. It Doesn’t Need To”
Within it Martínez explains the logistical nightmare that such a process would involve including the fact if Facebook were to record your voice the sheer amount of data it would need to send via your phone would be enormous.
“Facebook’s entire data storage is ‘only’ about 300 petabytes, with a daily ingestion rate of about 600 terabytes. Put another way, constant audio surveillance would produce about 33 times more data daily than Facebook currently consumes.” he writes.
Then of course there’s the permissions that both Google and Apple provide with iOS offering strict control over how a microphone is used within an app.
Finally Martínez points out that actually, Facebook has never and would never need to record your audio because all the interactions we provide it with already actually do a better job of telling them who we are as people.