Is Our Tech Spying On Us?

Anubhuti Kumar, Highlighter Editor

Facebook bots, fake news and finessing elections are all old news. The question now is exactly how social media emperor Mark Zuckerberg accumulates this intimate knowledge of user preferences, purchases and political inclinations.

Is he listening to us? Phone microphones could potentially allow for Facebook to access a myriad of personal information that could be extracted from conversation.

Is it that easy to track our every movement? Can he really target users so specifically, effectively and efficiently through niche interests, likes and searches? Or are users really that open on the platform that they essentially categorize themselves, leaving Zuckerberg to take advantage of the information users hand him?

“I don’t think Facebook is listening to us because they already have so much data through our activity on Facebook, our messages and our browser histories … audio would be less clear to break down and analyze because of different accents and the need to transcribe audio into text,” said Jacqueline Huang, a Stern junior and former intern for the Hillary for America Digital team. “Facebook would need to sift through vastly more data and cut through even more noise, so I don’t think it’s an efficient way to improve its ad algorithm and increase revenues.”

But not everyone is convinced that Zuckerberg doesn’t have ears in every room, as some ads are just too hard to explain in any other way.

“I get ads for things that I’ve had real-life conversations about that I’ve never searched before. The timing is always too convenient — immediately after the conversation takes place,” Steinhardt senior Rena Levin said. “An example is the time I had the GIF versus JIF pronunciation debate and then I got an ad for Jif peanut butter [soon after], meaning that it was listening for wording and not context there’s no other way that can be explained. It happens all the time, and it’s not so much negative as invasive and annoying.”

Facebook even uses its information to categorize users by habit and interest, labels which can be accessed through the ads section of the user’s settings.

“The annoying part behind all of that is that most of the time, these ads are not targeted toward my interests at all but simply to the topic of conversation which may have no relevance to my purchasing habits … if I were an advertiser, I’d be extremely upset that my money was being spent on the wrong customer because the app [didn’t] function right,” continued Levin.

Facebook isn’t the only point of concern for those suspicious of the invasiveness of technology. Discussions over whether smart speakers, such as the Amazon Alexa, are listening in on conversation have surfaced since more and more people started purchasing the products. Huang has doubts about whether the tactics used by Facebook necessarily translate to the Amazon Alexa.

“Even though I think it’s pretty normal, Alexa has to listen to everything I say in order to determine when I’m trying to talk to it,” Huang said, continuing to explain that the Amazon Alexa deletes its data periodically to avoid other people from manipulating it.

Facebook makes similar claims to protect privacy, but the latest leak scandal with Cambridge Analytica proves that social media companies are making promises they can’t keep, and it is clear the consequences stretch beyond annoying ads and into dangerous political situations.

“I was not informed that I was consenting to this amount of invasion of my privacy. While I gave permission to use my microphone and allowed basic information to be collected, it does not mean they can expand that purview as they develop new technology to facilitate more collection,” said GLS junior Pragya Gianani. “Just because it is legal does not make it right, and clearly it is being used not just for profit through targeted advertising but in manipulative and destructive ways.”

The latest revelations about the influence of misused data could finally bring an overhaul in practices and tighter security on personal information in light of public outrage. We can only hope these potential issues resolve themselves in the near future.

Read more of the Washington Square News’ Technology Feature. Email Anubhuti Kumar at [email protected].