Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Facebook listening to conversations through microphone? (reddit.com)
85 points by recycleme on Oct 9, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments


I work in Ad tech. No one is capturing anyone's voices to serve them ads via their mobile devices. People are often segmented by location and proximity to interests, however. If someone nearby (a neighbor, perhaps) searched for pest control? Guess what, you're now in a likely segment of people looking for pest control. Boss searched for a canon printer at work? You're in that segment, too, until your interest score drops and you're removed from that audience segment. This is pretty universal - you can even see what Google's got you pegged for being interested in by going here: https://www.google.com/settings/ads

TL;DR: There are like-minded people in very close proximity to you, searching for the same things that you search for/mention/use/lust after, and you're getting lumped in with them.

This should be the top answer.

As much as I would love another reason to hate Facebook, I don't really think they actually capture the app user's voices.

The fact that we have to guess what our phones are doing is very weird.

Most of us have to guess what our computers are doing too. Open up your task manger, do you know what every single process is doing?

It's not just listening. Facebook once showed me an ad for sneakers after mine were stolen, thus proving that Facebook sent somebody to steal them.

that can be easily explained by image recog algo finding all your photos barefoot, also NSA can use Facebook to catch the thief after he posts selfie with the stolen goods.

Well you did break them in and they are super comfy.

Facebook's explanation:

>Myth: The feature listens to and stores your conversations.

>Fact: Nope, no matter how interesting your conversation, this feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn’t listening to or storing your conversations.

>Here’s how it works: if you choose to turn the feature on, when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can’t be reversed into the original audio because they don’t contain enough information.

>Myth: Facebook is always listening using your microphone.

>Fact: Nope, if you choose to turn this feature on, it will only use your microphone (for 15 seconds) when you’re actually writing a status update to try and match music and TV.

http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/05/a-new-optional-way-to-sh... (via http://www.computerworld.com/article/2490090/social-media/ba...)

Myth 1: they claim to not store audio or recordings. They could easily store keywords it detects from the mic.

Myth 2: they don't address what happens when you don't turn on the feature.

Edit to add: Overall they might not "listen to the mic" but they might be detecting words based audio data. It's all of matter of how you define things. Maybe to them, listening to the mic means playing an audio feed of the mic to a human being at Facebook, or software analyzing the full audio stream instead of a transformed/condensed view of the audio.

I wonder if it's possible to capture audio through the motion detection sensors? Would a phone lying on a table be able to pick up vibrations caused by someone speaking? Does the OS provide APIs for app developers to access the information ?

With some training, motion sensors can detect what's being typed on a keyboard sharing the same surface.

That's actually still pretty creepy.

That's an explanation for one single feature. They never mention if other code in the app has the ability to snoop on conversations.

Well, it categorically denies that "Facebook is always listening using your microphone," regardless of which feature we're talking about.

But that's also really easy phrasing to write a loophole for :P

I wonder if anyone makes a phone with LEDs for all hardware functions, like some laptops have LEDs which light up whenever anything accesses the built-in webcam?

That would be interesting. But having a completely modular phone with hardware kill switches would be better imo. That way you can just dismantle it when not in use. Put it back together when going out. Switch the mic on when needed etc.

Unfortunately we can't do fine grained permissions like that on any common smart phone OS. You'll have to either take their word for it, or decompile the app and make sure they are telling the truth.

On iOS, the status bar turns red whenever an app uses the microphone. Unless you think they are jailbreaking the phone.

Even if the app is running in the background? Sorry, I don't use iOS

challenge accepted

Well, how have you fared with this challenge?

The obvious reason is that your friends are searching for things. When you talk to your friends and your friend mentions that he's going through a divorce, the odds are great that he's looked up a divorce lawyer online, because you're friends, FB figures you'd be interested in the same thing and starts serving you ads for divorce attorneys.

Or if your friend is renovating his house and does a search for new cabinets, you'll see cabinets show up in your ads. And you won't think anything about it until you talk to your friend about his renovations. Then you get home, and your FB is full of renovation ads.

Never attribute to malice or competence (voice fingerprinting for ad targeting )what can adequately be explained by a stupid algorithm ("my friends and I must like the same things" ad targeting).

OP updated this to specify that they saw cockroaches and immediately after saw the ads without searching at all.

The coincidence is certainly odd, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility, especially if this isn't the first time they've had cockroaches (ie. they might be in a demographic/audience segment likely to have these issues and be frequently targeted).

I would also add that FBX partners can leverage a massive amount of 3rd party data, such as search retargeting vendors that can serve ads as quickly as seconds after you've searched for something on one of the data sources they partner with (engines, toolbars, etc.).

Alternatively other people in the same building could have had roaches and somehow made FB aware of it (e.g. status updates), and FB could have targeted him based on his address.

I think the real story here is "users have ZERO trust in Facebook"

...and yet keep the app running, continue to use the website, surf while logged in to Facebook, etc., etc.

all while having their privacy thoroughly plundered and raped.

Do bugs in Houston tend to come inside in October? If so, the ad may just have been targeted at location + time of year. (I'm just tossing out a hypothesis; I have no opinion either way as to whether Facebook was listening.)

Yeah, to me this just looks like a case of false positive pattern recognition, given the relatively tiny number of conspiracy-theory-style complaints about it.

All you need is some more or less benign targeted advertising by local exterminators (for example, "age 22+", "females and married couples", "single-family dwelling", and a zip code the exterminator knows have had lots of bug complaints) and somebody happening to glance at their phone after being spooked by bugs.

(You may be creeped out by Facebook knowing what type of dwelling you live in, but that's a separate issue.)

Or just a significant number of people in the same region searched for or posted about killing bugs.

This is somewhat anecdotal but with the latest iOS and Facebook app versions, Facebook doesn't even show up on the list of apps that have requested to use my microphone. Unless they found some exploit to bypass Apple's restrictions and use my microphone without even asking for permission, I seriously doubt they're listening to users.

In this case the guy admits there is no permission request granted, thus Facebook provably is not listening in on his device.

Leaving out the possibility that Facebook and Apple have agreements that let Facebook bypass restrictions that other vendors are subject too.

Remember that Apple is not a government and can and does show favoritism in how it relates to developers selling through their system.

Although the prospect of Google, Facebook or Apple doing always on Voice Recognition seems unlikely in terms of bandwidth and power requirements.

Reading all the creepy anecdotes in the thread ...

Possibility 1 : Facebook is snooping on your conversations.

Possibility 2: Their machine learning algorithms are getting creepily good at predicting your wants and needs.

Both are scary.

Possibility 3: With a large enough userbase, all sorts of crazy co-incidences happen. If 1.4 billion users login every day, 1 in a million co-incidences happen once a minute.

I concede but only upto a point. Do go to the thread read all the crazy coincidences :P . Their targeting is definitely improving.

Confirmation bias? How many times was the author shown ads for exterminators before this incident but paid them no attention?

> There was also an article a few years ago that talked about how they have super computers that aggregate all your data thats available about you and make estimates on when you would need something or have a life event. Its evidently crazy accurate at approximating when you would say get married, buy a car, buy a house, and very good at predicting your shopping habits.

Dear Facebook overlords, when will I meet the girl I'll marry?

Seriously, has anyone tried this?

> Dear Facebook overlords, when will I meet the girl I'll marry?

Facebook's ability to answer that question may be somewhat related to their ability to construct the outcome. They're integrated with the major dating apps, they choose which people are in and out of view, they know all about you both and have your communications and from when/where you communicate and what events you might attend together...

The question isn't "when will I meet the girl I'll marry", but: "please match me with the girl I'll marry".

"Future murky. Try again later."

I think this is probably just an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/theres-a-name-for-tha...

I had a similar experience. My girlfriend watches a lot of Netflix. She was listening to Gotham when she asked me to look up the name of one of the actors on IMDB.

I fired up Chrome on my already opened MBP, typed IMDB in the search bar and the first result was IMDB Gotham.

I'm not going to speculate, but the coincidence was indeed surprising.

Correlation is not causation.

This is the kind of stuff that convinces people of having a religious moment that "only" can be explained by their religious beliefs.

Indeed, that's why I mentioned I was not going to speculate. It was just surprising, as I never watch TV, or Netflix.

There is always the possibility of Facebook listening to conversation. But it is also possible to figure out your interest using context time travel. Google does it all the time.[1]

> Imagine scaling this idea. Imagine you know everything a person goes through. Everything. In the right context, you will be able to predict everything this person does. By studying his past, you can determine his thoughts all the time. Here is something that happened to me a few years ago.

> I've watched a Mexican show on YouTube for a few month. Let's call it a soap opera for now. A month later, I was chatting with a friend in Mexico and I've mentioned the show. She mentioned another Brazilian show she liked. This conversation was happening on whatsapp. The moment I jumped on Google, on my desktop machine, all I had to do was type 2 characters on the search bar and Google completed it with the name of the show she was talking about.

[1] http://idiallo.com/blog/context-time-travel

iOS: Settings > Privacy > Microphone

Facebook isn't even listed as an app that uses the microphone.

They want to know e.g. what ad you've just watched on TV so they can reinforce it with one of their own, that's what they listen for.

"They trust me — dumb fucks."

- Mark Zuckerberg

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10361203 and marked it off-topic.

How is it off-topic? The comment Zikes was originally replying to is about users' trust in Facebook, and Zikes' comment is a notable (albeit long ago) quote from the founder of Facebook about users' trust in Facebook.

(Sorry, I meant to add an explanatory sentence and got distracted. One moment please.)

It's because this is a classic rage tangent, and those invariably reproduce the same result.

People exhume this quote at every opportunity as if it adds light to the topic at hand. But this is an optical illusion: it only appears to do so because it's the most cherry-picked detail ever. All it really adds to the discussion is a rage supplement, like one of those toxic fuel additives.

If you picked a bad thing I—or any of us—said, and brought it out at every apparently relevant moment, you could make me—or any of us—look just as bad. The only differences are that the horrible things I said at 19 have been forgotten (at least I hope they have) and I didn't turn into the CEO of Facebook or some other celebrity.

These single-purpose memes are a side-effect of how the Internet works (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9722096). They're reflexive, not reflective, so they don't belong in HN discussions.

I do feel like it removes a rather important piece of context around my posting of the quote. Whereas before it was an additional point about the sentiment of general user trust in Facebook, now it stands as an attempted jab amidst the dogpile of tinfoil hattery.

That's why we link to the original parent: so anyone who wants to see the original context can.

- 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact