Is Facebook listening to you?

TL;DR: No. But it doesn’t have to either.
Phone receiver in the Facebook logo.

Ever had a conversation with someone recommending a new [INSERT SMART DEVICE], only to see it advertised to you on Facebook or Instagram literally the same day? It’s the sort of coincidence that feels too spooky to be just a coincidence. Can Facebook be listening to my conversations? The answer is maybe more obvious than that.

Facebook doesn’t listen to you per se

Former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez argued in a 2018 Wired article that not only is it highly unlikely that Facebook is listening to your every spoken word, but that it also doesn’t need to.

While Facebook may not literally be accessing your audio input, the social network already collects a lot of information, from your demographic and location data to anything you share with the platform, including photos, videos, your billing addresses, shipping information, and credit and debit cards. Martinez argues that this information is enough for advertisers to market their products and services to you. If a website has a Facebook tracker, Facebook can track your movements on there, too.

For now it seems, Facebook doesn’t need to collect anything else. Martinez points out that the additional collection of audiovisual data would be harder to parse for keywords that advertisers could use in their targeting. But it’s important to bear in mind that just because collecting data from your conversations would be a huge task doesn’t mean they won’t consider it in future.

We also know that Facebook keeps “shadow profiles” that are made up of information from non-users who have interacted with a site that has a Facebook tracker, and can even use the dust on your camera lens to know where you are (although it’s not currently in use, the company has the technology for it).

Facebook isn’t the only app you need to be wary of—there are other apps that will request access to your audio, and you’ll need to figure out whether the app in question really needs access to it or not.

Limit what Facebook collects about you

Facebook has a lot of data on you, and frankly it’s hard to know if deleting your account, be it Facebook or Instagram, will stop them from storing your data on their own servers.

Deleting your account is the definitive approach, but if you’re dependent on the platforms for staying in touch with family and friends, there are several privacy settings on Facebook you can toggle to reduce how much information you give to Facebook.

Toggle location tracking to ‘Never’

Refuse Facebook access to your location data by turning location tracking off. On a web browser, you can find the instructions to change your location settings on your device under Permissions > Location.

On Apple iOS devices: Go to your device’s Settings and select Facebook under Apps. Select Never.

On Android devices: Open up Facebook and go to Manage Settings and set location tracking to Never.

Toggle ad tracking to ‘Never’

Now, while Facebook will still show you ads, Facebook says “they won’t be as relevant to you.” They will also be able to target you based on demographic data like your age and gender, as well as your location (if you’ve mentioned it in your profile).

On a web browser, go to Permissions > Ad preferences > Ad settings, then scroll down to the section marked “Manage data used to show you ads.” to turn ad tracking off.

On Apple iOS devices: Go to Settings > Facebook, and then tap to turn off Allow Tracking.

On Android devices: Go to Settings > Apps and Notifications > Facebook where you can then block Facebook’s ability to target you personalized ads, as well as blocking access to your phone’s location, your contacts, and your phone’s microphone and camera.

Jamie writes about current issues concerning digital privacy and security and is known to interview leading figures in tech. He also keeps an eye on changes in government censorship and surveillance.