Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg officially shot down the conspiracy theory that the social network has some way of keeping tabs on its users by tapping into the mics on people’s smartphones. During Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate this afternoon, Senator Gary Peters asked the CEO if the social network is mining audio from mobile devices – something his constituents have been asking him about, he said.
The fact that so many people believe that Facebook is “listening” to their private conversations is representative of how mistrustful users have grown of the company and its data privacy practices, the Senator noted.
“I think it’s safe to say very simply that Facebook is losing the trust of an awful lot of Americans as a result of this incident,” said Peters, tying his constituents’ questions about mobile data mining to their outrage over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
But questions about Facebook’s mobile data collection practices aren’t anything new.
In fact, Facebook went on record back in 2016 to state – full stop – that it does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or News Feed stories.
Despite this, it’s something that keeps coming up, time and again. The Wall St. Journal even ran an explainer video about the conspiracy last month, and yet none of the reporting seems to quash the rumor.
People simply refuse to believe it’s not happening. They’ll tell you of very specific times when something they swear they only uttered aloud quickly appeared in their Facebook News Feed. Perhaps their inability to believe Facebook on the matter is more of an indication of how precise – and downright creepy – Facebook’s ad targeting capabilities have become over the years.
Peters took the opportunity today to ask Zuckerberg this question straight on today, during Zuckerberg’s testimony.
“Something that I’ve been hearing a lot from folks who have been coming up to me and talking about a kind of experience they’ve had where they’re having a conversation with friends – not on the phone, just talking. And then they see ads popping up fairly quickly on their Facebook,” Peters explained. “So I’ve heard constituents fear that Facebook is mining audio from their mobile devices for the purposes of ad targeting – which I think speaks to the lack of trust that we’re seeing here.”
He then asked Zuckerberg to state if this is something Facebook did.
“Yes or no: does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?,” Peters asked.
Zuckerberg responded simply: “no.”
The CEO then added that his answer meant “no” in terms of the conspiracy theory that keeps getting passed around, but noted that the social network does allow users to record videos, which have an audio component. That was a bit of an unnecessary clarification, however, given that the question was about surreptitious recording, not something users were explicitly recording media to share.
“Hopefully that will dispel a lot of what I’ve been hearing,” Peters said, after hearing Zuckerberg’s response.
We wouldn’t be too sure.
There have been a number of lengthy explanations of the technical limitations regarding a project of this scale, which have also pointed out how easy it would be to detect this practice, if it were true. But there are still those people out there who believe things to be true because they feel true.
And at the end of the day, the fact that this conspiracy refuses to die says something about how Facebook users view the company: as a stalker that creeps on their privacy, and then can’t be believed when it tells you, “no, trust me, we don’t do that.”