If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably experienced the uncanny phenomenon of seeing adverts relating directly to something you’ve previously searched for. “Oh, that’s weird,” you think, for a split second. “How does Facebook know I’m on the hunt for the perfect navy jumper?”
Then you remember that targeted advertising is very much a thing, that Google knows an awful lot about your interests and desires, and that WhatsApp shares its data with Facebook to deliver you ads for stuff you’ve been messaging your friends about. In other words, you accept these ads as just another, slightly eerie, facet of life in 2017.
More unnerving, however, is when you see an advert relating to a conversation you had in real life, on a subject you’ve never searched or discussed online. Rumours have swirled for some time about whether smartphones and voice assistant devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, listen into conversations in order to serve relevant advertising. It’s definitely a creepy idea, but not one that’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
However, a Facebook executive has now categorically denied that the social media giant listens into users’ conversations, BBC News reports.
Writing on Twitter, Robert Goldman, the vice-president of ads at Facebook, said: “I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true.”
When another Twitter user asked if that rule included Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, Goldman said: “Yes.”
Goldman was responding to a tweet by PJ Vogt, the presenter of tech podcast Reply All. Vogt had asked his followers to submit their stories “if you believe that Facebook uses your mic to spy on you for ad reasons”.
At the time of writing, Vogt’s tweet had sparked almost 200 replies – many from people who believed exactly that.
I have been talking about getting a cat. I didn't post about it anywhere but I DID start seeing ads for cat food.— kelley bodwell (@kelleyblythe_) October 26, 2017
Twitter user Tori Hoover, meanwhile, wrote: “A coworker got an ad saying ‘so you popped the question!’ minutes after he proposed, before he told anyone it had happened.”
This is not the first time that Facebook has denied using mics for advertising purposes. In 2016, the company published a statement on its website insisting: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.”
“We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about,” continued the statement.
However, Facebook did concede that the site may access smartphone users’ microphones “if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”
While creepy stories abound about eavesdropping technology, there is another – more comforting – explanation for why you might see an advert connected to something you’ve only discussed out loud.
David Hand, a mathematics professor at Imperial College London, told the BBC last year that the connection between ads and conversations may be entirely coincidental. You could have been shown an advert on multiple occasions, he said, but only noticed it when it was connected to something you’d been talking about in real life.
He also said that given how many online ads we all see every day, it’s not surprising that every so often we see one that seems strangely relevant.
“If you take something that has a tiny chance of occurring and give it enough opportunities to occur, it inevitably will happen,” he said.