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Ask HN: Do you have examples of Facebook using your microphone for ads?
49 points by lunchladydoris on Feb 12, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments
A few days ago we had this thread [0] where someone asked about a Facebook ad that arrived mysteriously on their page. I saw several possible explanations for this in the thread. Later I found a post by Facebook [1] stating explicitly that it does not use the microphone for ads. I was satisfied, until last night.

Last night, while we were at home, my wife mentioned to me that she would like to get a storage box to hold her external hard drives. She described her ideal one as a metal box with some sort of foam to hold the drives in place. She had never searched for something like this before and wasn't even aware that something like this existed. A couple hours later, an ad for such a product landed up on her Facebook page. I was a little freaked out.

So, do you have any examples of where something like this has happened to you? Am I being paranoid and this is just a coincidence? Or could Facebook actually be listening in on us?

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13597225 [1] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/h/facebook-does-not-use-your-phones-microphone-for-ads-or-news-feed-stories/

Considering that this would be pretty easy to prove, but no one has yet, Occam's razor says this most likely was something else entirely. One possible explanation could be that the ad was shown to her before as well but she didn't notice it, yet it subconsciously registered and created a need or idea for such a product (i.e. you're switching around cause and effect). Another is that your wife is quite predictable in her demand of such a product due to other factors that are trackable by Facebook.

If you are using Facebook on a recent phone client, or through a browser, whenever this happens, try this:

- There is a little "chevron" menu popdown in the advert, generally top-right.

- Tap it, and then pull down "Why am I seeing this?"

Then you will find out why you are seeing the advert.

Source: I used to work at Facebook

"One reason you're seeing this ad is that bluefrog Plumbing + Drain wants to reach people who are part of an audience we created based on data provided by Acxiom. Facebook works with data providers to help businesses find the right audiences for their ads."

So, it's Acxiom doing the listening?

Axciom does all of the data buying and creating models to figure out what people like.

Source - Used to work with Axciom data myself

I find it highly unlikely and am inclined to believe Facebook on this one.

I'd say it's much more likely that your wife had seen that ad before your conversation but wasn't particularly conscious of seeing it.

You're basically describing how advertising works - making people feel they want to buy something without them even realising.

If Facebook indeed does this, it should be fairly easy to trigger by repeatedly mentioning some kind of product in front of a running Facebook app. If not, it's a "can't reproduce" for me.

Oh, the fun that could be had by starting a meme of "subliminal advertising for bots"; part-inspired by that "alexa buy a doll house" thing, we float a startup that will pitch audible product placement in YouTube/etc videos, in the hope that your Amazon Echo / Google Whatever will buy it for you. We make millions on VC and then skip the country. Deal?

How would you know whether that product's maker pays for that sort of marketing? Perhaps if you tried ten products and got one positive, that would suffice.

OK, we just made up a big fake conversation in the presence of a desktop and laptop running fb, an iphone running the ap, and an iphone only accessing via Safari.

We mentioned Target, including a request for upcoming sales and target credit cards, Advil, Colgate, Liquid Plumber, Scott toilet paper, Wells Fargo (though we need to rule that out bc my daughter's been googling them re DAPL), Citibank, Marriott, Red Lobster, and an imaginary pending trip to Maine.

I will report back what we see.

edit: none of these do we use or see ads for.

10 hours later: nothing convincing. I got one for an Amex card and he got one for Discover, but nothing exact. His other ads were verizon, geico, halls, lay's, AT&T. Mine were only local news sites -- paper, radio and tv.

Still no winner.

I do not. However, I've heard it anecdotally many times. You can definitely find similar stories on reddit.

I'm guessing Facebook is doing some pretty complicated work to find that interest and serve the ad, but as evil as Facebook is I doubt they're straight up lying about using the microphone to listen and serve ads.

/puts on conspiracy hat

Facebook might obtain the ad profile match from a third party which obtained microphone access and would let them bot claim 'at this one company we do not use microphone recordings to target ads'

Does it actually matter much whether there are current, proven examples? If you give their app access to your microphone, they're going to use it for ad targeting and worse as soon as it's politically / technically / economically expedient to do so.

On my iPad, the Privacy settings for Microphone do not even have entries for the official FB or Twitter apps, so I'm not sure how this could be done on iOS. So I wonder if the user is using a different platform in question?

Not verbal communications, but I have seen ads relating to SMS messages I've sent or received. Perfect example was my wife advising the vacuum cleaner was broken, next thing I see when I logged onto Facebook was an advert for vacuum cleaners.

I have been approached by companies that wish to listen for audio on our mobilenetworks for tv stations. They have pretty good id databases of the shows in the background and use the information to reset ads and to sell back to stations. They did mention facebook being a client. As far as realtime interpretation of plain audio for ads that doesn't seem far fetched. Ad units of these companies are the elite i wouldn't put it past them.


This just happened to me: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13589749

None of the possible justifications mentioned in the replies really apply for the case I observed... We have had this happening two or three times, and it is always when my wife's mobile is around (I don't have FB app installed).

So for all I care, it is something that does happen.

Facebook friends are looking at the place on Facebook, so Facebook shows you adverts for it.

It's a really basic and obvious explanation.

Nobody is secretly listening to your phone.

Coincidence. FB has over a billion daily users and each one communicates dozens of concepts per day - if each person sees numerous ads per day then it's a statistical certainty that someone, somewhere happens to get an ad that matches up with something they mentioned earlier in that day or week. This is the same reason why everyone has a story about a dream that came true.

I've had a number of ads pop up for things my wife and I have discussed verbally without searching. Even if Facebook themselves do not monitor the mic, nothing prevents someone else (Apple, Google, etc) from doing so and feeding that information to FB. It's certainly occurring but it's not clear that FB is directly responsible.

I imagine you'd notice the battery drain if that were really a mic eavesdrop.

More likely you and your wife are demographically similar to others those advertisers are researching and targeting

You may need to look up the definition of "certain."

Have you considered wrapping your mobile phone in tinfoil?

I was talking to my boyfriend in the car about the idea of people having personal plastic recycling machines in their home, where you would break down the plastic waste you create and then make "ink"for a home 3D printer to reprint plastic household items. This idea came to me when I was thinking about the world's problem with plastic water bottles, at that time, in the car. An hour later, he opened his Facebook on his phone that was on and playing music in the car and the first ad he saw was for a 3D printer that uses recycled plastic. I know the idea in my head goes along with current popular issues of the times, so yes my thought process and Facebook ad could just be coincidence, but the fact that it was a more novel and complex idea made it amusing.

My wife and I were talking about salt. I forget the exact conversation, but was random. Not about wanting salt for dinner or whatever just a general conversation about salt.

Opened Facebook a little while later and ther was an ad for Morton's Salt at the very top of my feed. I've never searched on the internet anywhere for salt. I've never liked mortons salt on Facebook. I've never clicked on anything remotely related to salt.

I'm 99.9% convinced facebook was open and listening to us. (There is a very small possibility it was a coincidence, but I doubt it.)

My wife has had similar experiences where she was out at a bar talking with friends and on the Bart ride home saw ads for topics that were discussed.

My wife has this happen to her frequently. I bought a friend a bottle of Woodford Reserve (Bourbon) for his birthday and it appeared within a few days for her after discussing it on the way to the party (she doesn't even drink). Additionally, we have talked about "blue Gatorade" in the car only to have Cool Blue Gatorade show up within a few days. The one that really freaked me out was the "Thunderstorm" color paint that we saw a commercial for and briefly discussed. None of these things were actively searched on her device and were only talked about in private. I would believe some of the explanations here but the wide spread of items makes me think that Facebook and Instagram are passively listening to our conversations. These three items all appeared within the same month and within 72 hours of talking about them in person. I don't believe it could be a coincendence at this point.

IMO this is what's known as a coincidence. The odds against seeing an advert for a product you have just talked about are incredibly low, but there are also a hundreds of millions people using Facebook every day, each seeing hundreds of ads and discussing lots of products with their spouses. Eerie coincidences are inevitable.

Derren Brown did a great demonstration of a similar phenomenon by asking 100s of people to bet on a series of horse races. Of course one person backed the winning horse on all races and thought it was magic. What they didn't realise is that there were a lot of others doing this too and having one person back all the winners was (in that experiment) an inevitability.

Yes happened to me. I was discussing about a food item (Anchovies fish) within a day or two I saw some ad about restaurants famous for Anchovies. It was very surprising for me because I havent searched or even typed those words in my mobile.

Is this satire?

No it happened. I cant convince myself it could be a coincidence. I mean what are the odds ?

In case you are actually being serious, the odds of that happening are very normal.

If I assume for a moment that the microphone actually is being listened to for ad keywords… why would it have to be Facebook, specifically, who's listening? It could be another rogue service feeding back to Facebook.

Twitter has done this to me twice.

I had a deep and random conversation about Oreos and the tv show Colony recently.

Within a day ads started showing up on my timeline.

Is this satire?

No, actually happened. Both so random that I'm convinced twitter is listening in! Not sure how I was targeted for both otherwise.

You should be able to convert this into an experiment. Find an off-the-beat market and start talking about it in the presence of your phone (and maybe with the app open, don't know the particulars of when the app can activate the microphone). If an ad for a product in the space appears it would confirm the hypothesis that FB is listening in.

I doubt that FB is doing this, but I'm sure they are knowingly or unknowingly, buying data from someone who does.

Did she perhaps recently buy hard drives? Cases for drives seems like the type of thing to be advertised once they've connected that the buyer of the drives is the person currently logged into FB.

I talked to my friend about my tooth pain couple of days ago and I saw an ad for dentist yesterday. Can't have it appear again for the screenshot. Keep in mind I newer saw dentist ads before..

Google "confirmation bias".

I think best option is try talking some 'unique' topic again and see whether related ad popups or not.

Please do share your results :)

Ps : record the topic and take screenshot if you like to make a proof.

Why does'nt someone sniff the network traffic and see if this is happening or not. https man in the middle attacks exist.

Me and my boyfriend were talking about possible tiles to use for our future home, we never actively looked it up, as it was a conversation that sprung from watching a series. (In the episode during a bathroomshot we saw interesting tiles) During this conversation I was holding my phone. Next time I scrolled through fb, I got an ad for freakin' tiles.

This has happened many times. Since I deinstalled the fb-app and use facebook only through mobile safari, this has stopped.

Which platform was your FB app installed on? iOS does not provide mic access to FB at all, it's not even in the privacy options as that app has never requested mic access.

This is a well known phenomenon that has been understood for thousands of years.

It's called "coincidence".

There are many books available on the topic if you wish to increase your knowledge of the concept. Meanwhile there is a Wikipedia article to get your started:


I run a website that shows random images.

I ALWAYS get emails asking why I have showed an image that relates to what they person was just talking about.

But the images are random! It's the well understood concept of confirmation bias.

It's just depressing to see here, because I thought the readers of hackernews were more sophisticated than random sampling of the general population.

Wait... I just confirmation biased myself by only concentrating on the replies which believed that Facebook listens via your microphone, and ignoring those that disagreed.

My partner, who is bald, was sitting with his arms crossed, and I teased him for looking like Mr. Clean. We both got ads for Mr. Clean in the next 48 hours.

This is an absurd urban myth, and it's embarrassing to see such nonsense on this website.

From the audiblemagic.com Website linked to by another commentator:

"The Leading Automated Content Recognition Solution"

"Content ID Software & Information Services for Networks, Cloud Platforms, Devices & Apps"

"Make your smart device, application, or platform content aware in the presence of media streams or ambient audio."

Ambient audio. In other words, they turn your phone into a listening device then analyze what it hears for commercial purposes, albeit supposedly only for picking up the sound of copyrighted material.

I think its good to always be highly skeptical of all technology these days. I don't mean that we should do so in a tin-foil hat sort of way... but we should question everything. I saw a post on HN just a few days ago about how Vizio (the low-cost TV supplier) was wholesale collecting and selling all usage information to a third party... without users' consent. Its good to be vigilant and ask the "dumb" questions sometimes...

Well, global three-letter agency surveillance was an urban myth until it wasn't.

No it wasn't.

But even if was, then your logic would be absurd. You would be saying that every urban myth is true because a single example was true. That is nonsensical.

Let me spell it out for you: You claim that X is nonsense without any reasoning whatsoever. Why was NSA surveillance before 2013 not an urban myth? Why is facebook eavesdropping on you nonsense?

And no, I wasn't implying anything - I'd like some arguments regarding your point. And saying 'thats nonsense', 'you're wrong' does not make any of your points valid.

^ the original poster has made an absurd extreme claim, that Facebook listens to your microphone and serves adverts depending on what it hears.

It's not up to me to disprove such an absurd extreme claim, it's up to the OP to prove it.

That's how the world works, or else everyone would spend their entire lives having to disprove the claims of cranks and conspiracy theorists.

How is it "absurd extreme" though ?

Things like Amazon Echo exist and are used for all sorts of purposes, including making purchases and being available for law enforcement.

Gmail is an advertising company who actively listens in on the conversations you have on on their services (i.e. gmail) and uses it to display ads.

Facebook is an advertising company and data mines the hell out of all the data about you they can get their hands on to be able to sell targeted ads.

The specific use-case of "listening to you talk with your mouth, analyzing it and then showing you ads based on it" might not be explicitly be mentioned in the Facebook TOS, but it's the very natural extension of their business model keeping in pace with technology.

Well that is correct. But I was not answering OP, I was commenting on your pointless statement. I'm fully aware that this is not how the world works.

You haven't answered any of my questions so there's that.

If someone says that lizard aliens rule the world, then I don't need to prove or explain why not. I can simply say that it is absurd, and that such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Everything on this page has been "I talked about x and then I saw an advert for x a few days later". It's absurd cringe.

The OP did not make an absurd extreme claim. He or she asked for evidence attempting to diagnose whether it's true. You reject the commenters' anecdotal evidence.

Take your pity fights to reddit ffs. Most of us are here for evidence-based discussion. (OP gave source, you rejected it)

"Most of us are here for evidence-based discussion."

So far the evidence has been "I talked about x and a few days later I saw an advert for x".

It's absurd cringy nonsense.

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