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I find this statement from Facebook in the article to be oddly worded, as if it was carefully constructed by a lawyer to avoid getting caught in a lie:

"Facebook does not use your phone's microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed."

OK... so they are saying they don't use your microphone to target ads. But how about precisely enumerating how FB uses your microphone?

Do they use it for any purpose other than helping you communicate during a call?

Do they try to infer any persona information about you, which can then be used indirectly to make money from your data?

I too have had odd coincidences where eerily relevant ads show up after I have had a conversation. If only FB was more transparent about what they do, I might not be so paranoid about it.

I think you're on to something here about the indirection.

I too have witnessed the uncanny ads, but not even from my own phone (I don't have Facebook on my phone). A friend mentioned a particular restaurant I have never been to, been near, or searched for.

I can only assume my friend's conversation was geo-tagged either by my phone (android, no non-system mic access), or the data was combined on the server end to place both of us at the same place / same time, and used his recording to market to me.

I'd also like to note, the 'amount of bandwidth needed' is almost nothing by today's standards. Not to mention it can wait to transmit that data until on wifi. 8khz audio (telephone quality) is just kilobytes per second. A reasonably unsophisticated algorithm could trim the audio for an highs and lows (IE, statistically, sound below or above some dB threshold is trimmed because it won't be useful) and uploaded. We're talking about just a few kb per conversation.

Of course, the Facebook app is a memory, storage, and cpu hog (IMO), so I don't think it's unreasonable that given today's modern phone hardware some word recognition software may be present on devices themselves.

Or consider another scenario: your friend went to said restaurant and paid for something; read an article about the restaurant; viewed/interacted with an ad for the restaurant; liked a social media post for the restaurant; or was geo-tagged at or around the restaurant. Any of the above would be sufficient to associate your friend and the restaurant, and I'd wager targeting your social graph after you've interacted with a product/service would have a good ROI.

Alright here's another anecdotal experience. To preface it, i don't have Fb app or messenger on my phone but have WhatsApp and Instagram. I opted out of whatsapp's data sharing policy when you were able to do it.

So i was walking with co-workers for coffee and somehow we talked about a college. Now i can assure you that i have never ever searched for that college and i didn't even know it existed before that conversation took place. And 30 mins later, i'm browsing instagram at work and there is an ad of the said college. If this isn't creepy af, i dunno what is.

It might be creepy, but it might not be. It is possible that the conversation influenced the ad shown. But it is also likely that ad would have been shown no matter what the prior conversation was about. If the conversation hadn't included talking about the college prior to seeing the ad it would have been a non-event. But being primed in advance makes it at least feel like a freaky coincidence or at worst nefariously creepy targeted advertising.

These kind of events happen by chance and have been happening well before almost everyone started carrying mobile recording devices in their pockets and even pre-internet.

I have no doubt that advertisers would love to have that kind of insight but I can't help but feel that the anecdote of the form, we talked about A and A showed up X minutes later, is too easily explain by coincidence. How many topics were discussed, how many ads were shown? When I read something like this I imagine the anecdote should read more along the lines of how we talked about A, B, C, D, E and F and among the dozen or so ads I saw afterwords one of them was topic A! Can you believe it? And yes, yes I can, that is a pretty neat coincidence.

On the other hand if out of all 6 of the topics discussed all of the ads that were shown afterward were related to them, maybe not all, but more than one or two. That sounds like there is something fishy going on.

I don't mean to single out this particular example, it was to be a simple comment that had more to say. So, thank you for the inspiration!

The first time it happened to me, I considered it a coincidence. And the next few times too. It must because the game is new, or they know I've been searching for new floors on my computer, ect. But it keeps happening, and it's always in the time following after it was talked about, but not searched for. It has happened for things we talked about at friends place, that is completely outside what my wife and I would do.

The most blatant I've experienced was on the Wii U. The controller with the screen powers up and shows ads for new games every now and then. We actually had a bit of fun with it, casually talking about new games and guess what happened. An ad for that particular game was shown. I'm 100% certain now, that it happens with smartphones as well.

When I was a child and had history class, I was always surprised to see there was documentary about the period I was currently studying on the TV.

I thought that was some great scheme made by the adults.

Turns out, it isn't. Just everyday life coincidences. Reinforced by the global rythm of social life.

College ads are more likely to appear in the periods when people talk about college.

It could be the ads came up a more conventional way - the makers are priming the publicity for the game so it shows up in magazines and ad buys etc. If you and your friends are avid gamers - you probably get some early exposure before more general ad channels buys show up.

But to really answer this question, we could build a better experiment. Write out a set of topics on index cards. You have to be careful that topics aren't new product rollouts (otherwise you really have to think about how you decided to write that topic down in the first place). Draw a card, don't talk about or search the topic for some amount of time, then inject the topic where it might be observed (talk about it and/or search for it somewhere), then for some amount of time, see if it comes up.

Also keep track of every time that you see references to each topic both before and after bringing them up.

And have a control group that you simply don't bring up at all. Make sure to have more than one, so that you still have more remaining if someone around you brings up one of your control topics.

You're surprised that the Wii U is able to show you advertisements for games?

It shows advertisements for games I talk about. Games I do not search for.

Here's a fun experiment idea. When you are around friends and the Wii U, only talk about games that came out at Wii U launch, ideally one you don't have. Like, FIFA Soccer 13 or something. Don't ever search for that game or talk about it away from the Wii U. After a week or so of that, see if you get an ad for it.

"We were talking about new games and I got and ad for a new game!" sounds like pretty standard, non-targeted advertising. Easily chalked up to coincidence. Steam advertises new games to me, some I'm interested in and some I'm not, but I don't think Steam is reading my brainwaves.

How often does it show advertisements?

How many Wii U games are there anyway?

Would you expect the Wii U to do some sort of correlation (other people that own the same games A & B also own C, so you're probably interested in C)?

I cannot remember that it have ever showed one while I was sitting and reading an entire evening. But as soon as we start talking it will show advertising. That could be explained that it simply detects noise in the room, but it correlating to what we're talking about more often than not.

There's an option to disable it waking up and displaying things, so I've never seen adverts on mine (but maybe there's other things shown you do want to see?)

College is running an ad campaign, one of your co-workers saw it (consciously or unconsciously) earlier in the day, and that is what lead to the college coming up in conversation?

Nah, we were talking about universities (i'm in Canada and almost every uni has an associated college) and topic shifted from that uni to college.

Also, let's say what you are saying is true. How come ad decides to show up 30mins - 60 mins after conversation takes place?

Your friend could have searched for the college before or after your discussion, or maybe even your friend had just been looking up old college friends on Facebook lately and that was enough to match up that ad and you. Not that I wouldn't put it past Facebook to do something like this, but it will be hard to prove from anecdotes because, ironically, Facebook captures so much other data that plausibly could reveal the same connections.

What about the hundreds or thousands of other ads you see each day which have little relevance? It's easy to remember the ad that is creepily accurate, but I don't think it's at all surprising that these ads are occasionally hitting the jackpot

Alternate explanations:

* the "somehow we talked about a college" is because someone else at coffee was looking at something college related and it was recently on their mind so they brought it up. You're associated with those people, so ad agency it decides to show you an ad. It may do this a lot, but the times it actually works really stick out to you.

* After the coffee, one or more people search or perform actions associated with that college. Ad agency knows you were recently meeting with them so decides to show you some associated ad.

Keep in mind that the ad agencies, whether Facebook or Google or some lesser known but still large one, have their own profiles of you and who you associate with.

I think Occam's razor holds that since we know there are multiple agencies tracking what you do and who you do it with online and that can conceivably be used to explain most of this, it's a much more likely explanation than a large company outright lying in a way that would have a horrendous backlash if proven (and it's not really that hard to prove if people got serious).

Edit: whoops, not that hard to prove...

I get ads all the time that appear to be directly related to what my boyfriend, a non-facebook user, has been searching for. I figured it must be some IP based analytics.

Was your friend talking about the college because he saw an ad on Instagram or Facebook for it? Often times my roommate and I are in the same ad cohorts on Instagram and will see the same advert within a few days to each other.

And more importantly, that would be much more accurate AND lower risk than the conspiracy theory trying to transcribe everything the microphone hears when it's buried away in your pocket or bag and target ads based on that.

You don't need to transmit the audio. Just transcribe to text, remove any common or stop-words (a, an, the) and transmit what's left over in encrypted form to cover their tracks.

I wonder whether there is another mechanism at play. Often when I have conversations with friends, it's likely that either I or they search a term, or have done so recently. Couple that with the social graph and location tracking, and it's very easy for Facebook/Google to target an ad knowing when I interacted with another person and assume that I may have interest in the term that was recently searched by them.

A creepier one is before I proposed to my fiance I would now and then look up rings. One time I literally said "I need to look up some rings again" and went on Instagram not short after and BAM! There it was an advertisement for rings. It's too damn creepy of a coincidence, and I rarely ever believe in coincidences (sure enough more times than not they're not - at least in my experiences). There's been other moments of things I hadn't looked up or bought that I mentioned verbally and damn it, sure enough an ad on Instagram. It's downright witchcraft. Maybe I'll start documenting the phenomena every time it happens, maybe they'll auto take me out of the A/B testing for this by scraping HN. Ok I needa take off my tinfoil hat... Then again, could Google (Android is on my Phone) sell more detailed data to Facebook? I am going to heavily consider finally rooting my phone and installing a ROM on it.

I can't tell if you are being sarcastic or not.....

Wedding rings have an EXTREMELY high margin, and almost infinite budget for advertising. If you google rings once, you will continue seeings ads for YEARS, regardless of any conversations you have.

Honestly if Facebook knows you are in a relationship for 3+ years and you are under 35, you are going to start seeing ads for engagement rings even without searching for anything.

If you really think they are getting you through the microphone, start talking to your phone without anyone around, while browsing Facebook about Baby Diapers, Baby Formula, and Baby Toys. Don't search for anything baby related, and obviously use something else if you are a Father already.

I'm mostly being a bit over dramatic about it, but I did suspect my mic being snooped on when it did happen, could you blame me / anyone? Hence this article was written. It's very reasonably a coincidence considering how often I would search for rings, but creepy nonetheless. Hadn't seen those ads prior to starting on my search though.

My favorite is when you finally buy something and they still show you ads. Like a coworker mentioned, if I buy a refrigerator I don't need another one... I have one house! Come on! Maybe they do it in case you change your mind? Who knows how these ad companies think.

They keep showing you ads for the fridge because they don't know you have purchased the fridge.

The only way for them to know you have purchased a product is if you buy it online and get hit with the confirmation tracking pixel on the checkout page.

Most people see ads for a fridge, but then go into a physical store to make and finance the large purchase.

Oh no, that doesn't matter. I can search for something a buy it online, and be pestered with ads for the same product for days.

The ad-placement folks have technology and patents and millions tied up in all that. And what do they come up with? "Show ads for what they just bought"

Its more complicated than that. You are probably included in separate funnels that can't communicate.

The "fridge store" is doing a pixel based retargeting list, which is easy to take you off when the purchase is made.

But they also might have a list of 'customers likely to purchase a fridge' from Google searches that you are being served ads to as well. You might be on a 'look-a-like' list from Facebook, because people in your demographic tend to buy new fridges. You could be removed from that list if Google shared the IP addresses of everyone on their list, but at a serious cost to your privacy. These walled gardens are ultimately good, but result in a ton of advertising inefficacy.

I know its annoying but the advertisers are smart enough... we don't actually want them getting any better than they are now.

I don't buy it at all. I buy a fridge; the next time I'm on a browser, its fridge ads all the way. No way it isn't 1:1.

I agree with this. I don't think these companies need to tap your phone to figure out how to choose an Ad for you. They can do an excellent job just knowing that someone is at your house looking up something specific. I suppose one could argue that your privacy is really only worth as much as the person standing next to you values theirs. People just need to understand that their personal privacy decisions really aren't so personal after all.

I've had discussions with people about things I've never searched for or purchased -- discussions around specific companies, and then the same day I start receiving advertisements for those companies, only on Facebook (don't even get Google ones). I have a hard time believing they are re-assembling this from purchase history or any other metadata they have that is not real time. I'm still looking for a simple explanation for this!

Facebook is not a trustworthy company, so I have a hard time believing them about this. But it's why I don't install ANY Facebook applications on my phone anymore and that includes Messenger and Instagram, or any other company they purchase.

The simple explanation and (maybe scary) truth is that we're a lot more predictable than we think.

Remember when Target got into hot water for outing a pregnant teenager based on an assortment of items she bought [1]? That was based on items like scent-free soap, cotton balls, and vitamin supplements.

That was 6 years ago and (no offense to Target) done by a company that isn't nearly as adept at doing that kind of targeted advertising or inference.

For example, Facebook might know (hypothetically) that you're a young adult in the tech field who lives in Brooklyn and spends a lot of time looking at photography or you're friends with a lot of amateur photographers. So they show you ads for high-end cameras from the most popular vendors, knowing that you're likely to develop an interest in photography if you haven't already.

That's just an extremely simple example, you can imagine that there are far more subtle indicators about someone's interests or likely interests (like the cotton balls for pregnancy).

The timing is almost certainly a coincidence. It's far more likely they show you those ads all the time and you're just noticing them when the coincidence occurs because you're on high alert now for things like this.

1: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-targ...

I actually don't think the timing is a coincidence... OP says:

> I've had discussions with people about things I've never searched for or purchased

That doesn't mean his network hasn't been searching for or purchasing those things or leaving behind other breadcrumbs... which is probably enough for Facebook to guess you're a decent candidate for the ads.

also a very good point!

I just wouldn't be shocked if it was a coincidence as well, or something else driving it.

For example, the company mentioned in the OP could be something mentioned in the news recently or in a hot market position right now.

In which case, it's not bizarre that you might see ads for them on FB as well.

It was weird because we were having a discussion about problems in the office, construction related noise, and if we could find a different place to work temporarily. In that group discussion, specific companies that provide co-working services were proposed. I never searched for anything related to this around this time (but it's possible someone in that group did!), I remember that very clearly and why the experience was so creepy. And then that same day I start seeing advertisements for many of the co-working spaces in the area that came up in that discussion. Sure, it could be a coincidence, but it's not the first time I've had that happen with a similar context.

I think the example another person gave is almost just as creepy -- your friends influencing your own advertisements. That means that what your friends are searching for, private (embarrassing) things, could potentially leak over to you.

I'm pretty aware of the fact that if I go looking for socks, I'm going to start getting sock advertisements on almost every page I go with advertisements, on both Google and Facebook. I don't find that creepy, just dumb and ineffective because it usually starts well past the time I already bought the socks.

Off the top of my head, it could easily be the case that Facebook is:

1) Aware of construction happening close to your place of employment (in any number of ways that doesn't require any super advanced knowledge)

2) Knows that people usually start to get fed up with construction noises after X days

3) Started showing you popular co-working spaces as a result

Or, as you noted, your co-workers started searching for co-working spaces and Facebook picks up on that and assumes something is happening in your office such that other people might also be interested in co-working spaces. Creepy, sure. But doesn't require clandestine recording and parsing conversations.

Or, even simpler than that: I see WeWork advertisements all the time despite never discussing them. It's not really that insane to think that places like WeWork might just be targeting your demographic and that's why you saw the advertisement.

Anyway point being, none of these explanations require Facebook to record you.

Target's surprisingly sophisticated. They had a booth at NIPS this year, which I wasn't expecting.

Yeah, I didn't mean that as a dig at target. More so I meant that Facebook is probably just leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else.

That being said, that's totally based on just a hunch and I have no real data to back up that assertion so I could easily be wrong.

Obviously facebook uses the microphone if you shoot video or make a call from the app, so the wording is not that odd.

The point of the article is you should be even more paranoid about what Facebook has without your microphone.

With the amount of data that's floating out there about you and your friends, these coincidences are way, way more likely, and are very reasonable if you think about it.

Your friend told you about some restaurant, and then an ad shows up on Facebook.

Why is your friend telling you about it? Maybe he went there recently enough? Maybe he gave the restaurant a review? Maybe the restaurant has a list of people who've been to the restaurant before and is using Facebook ad manager to target those people and their friends? It's on his mind, so maybe that's causing him to leave enough breadcrumbs behind to make Facebook have an inkling of his interest, and you're his friend so Facebook knows to perhaps nudge you as well. And maybe Facebook actually has some idea that you and that person are meeting (yay geotracking!)

Now add a prediction system driven by deep learning models that are terrifyingly good at finding signal with a decent dose of probability (think of all the conversations you've had that didn't result in eery advertising), and you've got yourself a frightening reality where a company doesn't need your thoughts to make a decent guess about what you're thinking.

Frankly it might not even be this complicated. Maybe your network searching for or purchasing things is enough for Facebook to guess you're a decent candidate for the ad too, and you guys just happen to meet up on the same day.

I’ve wondered that, too. Their denial is suspiciously specific. In a personal experience that made me wonder if FB was listening through my phone, the item was a friend suggestion.

Yes in America while you are writing a status they use your microphone in a Shazam-like way to suggest things to put in your status. Apparently anyway. Not in America so can't test it.

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