One of the most persistent conspiracy theories in the tech world today is that Facebook is surreptitiously listening in on your real-world conversations via your smartphone’s microphone. According to the theory, the social network then uses that data to serve you ads relevant to things you’ve been talking about. It’s stoked by anecdotes in which people were served ads on Facebook for products they’d just been discussing out loud.
Facebook has tried to quell the rumor many times over the years. As early as June 2016, the company took the relatively unusual step of issuing a public statement about it, and the headline could hardly have been clearer: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone for ads or news feed stories.” It didn’t stop people from believing that, however, and the theory has persisted despite a series of additional debunkings and explainers by major media outlets. Perhaps the definitive exploration came on a November episode of the tech podcast Reply All, titled, “Is Facebook Spying On You?”
Still, the question resurfaced when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. “Yes or no, does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about users?” asked Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat. Once again, Zuckerberg denied it straightforwardly. “No,” he said, then clarified that the Facebook app accesses the phone’s mic only when people use it to record videos. That seemed to appease Peters, who said, “Hopefully that will dispel a lot of what I’ve been hearing.” Hardcore skeptics noted, however, that Zuckerberg was not technically under oath.
Last week, the question came up publicly yet again—and this time, Facebook did itself no favors with its response.
Among hundreds of written follow-up questions from Congress, which were published on June 11 along with Facebook’s responses, were at least three that reiterated the question about whether the company listens in on users’ conversations to target them with ads.
In all three cases, Facebook responded with a clear “no.” But a couple of eagle-eyed journalists noticed that Facebook gave a much murkier answer to this follow-up from Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican: “Will Facebook commit to not using its platform to gather such audio or visual information surreptitiously?”
Instead of answering directly, Facebook referred Cruz to a previous response in which it said that it does not engage in this sort of collection of audio data. In other words, it seemed that Facebook was refusing to commit to not listening to its users’ conversations at some point in the future. Both Quartz and the Independent ran stories to that effect, suggesting that Facebook might have been leaving itself an opening to do just the sort of shady audio surveillance that the conspiracy theorists have feared all along.
Surprised that Facebook would even consider engaging in such a practice, given all the outcry about it over the years, I pressed the company to further clarify its stance on future collection of audio data from users’ mobile devices. Within a day, a Facebook spokesperson got back to me with an amended version of a statement that the company had previously given in its answers to Congress. I’ve reprinted the revised statement below, with the newly added sentence italicized:
To be crystal clear on this point: Facebook does not use users’ phone’s microphone or any other method to extract audio to inform ads or to determine what they see in their News Feed. Facebook only accesses users’ microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio (like voice messaging features). We have no plans to change this.
This is the first time Facebook has publicly stated that it has no plans to listen in on people’s phones. So perhaps that will put to rest the latest flurry of speculation as to Facebook’s intentions on this point.
Perhaps—but probably not. After all, saying you have “no plans” to do something is still different from ruling it out. Anyone who follows politics knows that when a candidate says they have “no plans” to run, that means they’re considering it. So, provided we take Facebook at its word, the one remaining question is whether it’s leaving itself an opening out of an abundance of caution, or because it really is thinking about doing this. Either is plausible.
Less plausible is the idea that Facebook really is already doing this, and keeps flat-out lying about it, even as they carefully hedge when pressed on future plans. The takeaway at this point seems to be: Facebook isn’t spying on us via our phones, and it doesn’t have immediate plans to do so in the future, but you never know.
Oh, and if you’re really devoted to the conspiracy theory and are looking for a straw to grasp? Here’s one: Facebook never did answer my other question, which was whether it has ever tested the collection of audio data for advertising purposes. Dunh-dunh-dunh.