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March 13, 2018

THAT’S NOT VERY COMFORTING: Facebook Really Is Spying on You, Just Not Through Your Phone’s Mic.

“Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed,” says Facebook.

Yeah, sure, and the government swears it isn’t keeping any pet aliens at Area 51. So I contacted former Facebook employees and various advertising technology experts, who all cited technical and legal reasons audio snooping isn’t possible.

Uploading and scanning that much audio data “would strain even the resources of the NSA,” says former Facebook ad-targeting product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez. “They would need to understand the context of what you are saying—not just listen for words,” says Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager.

I believe them, but for another reason: Facebook is now so good at watching what we do online—and even offline, wandering around the physical world—it doesn’t need to hear us. After digging into the various bits of info Facebook and its advertisers collect and the bits I’ve actually handed over myself, I can now explain why I got each of those eerily relevant ads. (Facebook ads themselves offer limited explanations when you click “Why am I seeing this?”)

Advertising is an important staple of the free internet, but the companies buying and selling ads are turning into stalkers. We need to understand what they’re doing, and what we can—or can’t—do to limit them.

If you must use Facebook — I’ve found it can be a real boon for promoting BillWhittle.com video segments — try deleting the app from your phone and/or tablet. Because that’s where much of the “spying” takes place.

Instead, limit your use to a desktop or laptop, and install what I call “a Facebook browser.” Whatever browser you regularly use, install Firefox or Edge or some other browser, and use that one exclusively for Facebook.

No, I don’t actually think they’re out to get me. But being followed around, even virtually, is inherently creepy.