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If Facebook Is Not Spying on Us, Why Do We Get Ads for Things We Speak About?

Have you ever talked about something out loud to a friend or family member, only to later see Facebook ads for the very thing you were talking about? Rumors that the social network platform somehow listens to our conversations are not new. Touted as “conspiracy theories,” many Facebook users have reported odd coincidences that feel more like spying than marketing. Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied these allegations in a Senate hearing with a simple ‘no,’ the truth is a bit more complicated.

Facebook targeted ads spying allegations

It appears that users are largely unaware of just how deep technology goes to collect data about them. This data is used to target ads to them across a variety of platforms. Taking a deep dive into Facebook’s data collection is a bit surreal, as most of the information is hidden in plain sight. Even though Facebook ads controls are technically accessible on every user’s account, most have no idea just how they’re being profiled.

Is Facebook Listening To Me To Show Me Ads?

Artists Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain have both experienced that eerie feeling that someone is listening to them via their phones. Not surprisingly, they aren’t the only ones. To explore this collective paranoia about being spied on, the pair made a collection of personal experiences that seem too coincidental to ignore. Called “The New Organs,” this online archive is a starting point for the pair to explore the data collection phenomenon of our digital era. (1)

In 2018, Facebook was embroiled in a scandal that brought digital privacy to the forefront. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie told media outlets about Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm. Apparently, the company spent large sums of money to buy data from Facebook, using it to build ad models to influence users. Specifically, the firm went on to use data from 50 million people to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This shocking reveal led to an investigation, with Mark Zuckerberg required to answer questions from the Senate. There, he denied that Facebook uses audio from mobile device microphones to get personal information from users. (2, 3)

There is a caveat here, however. Facebook is still listening, just not in the way you think.

Tracking Your Online Presence

When you sign up for Facebook, you do give up some of your privacy.  However, you may not realize just how deep online tracking goes. Have you ever used your Facebook login to create a user account on another site? Do you like, comment, and interact with your friends’ posts? Do you use Google? Are you on Instagram? Have you downloaded What’s App? Do you regularly use the internet?

Most people would answer yes to a majority of these questions. If so, know that Facebook is mining your data. When you log on to Facebook, the company can see and track every other website you visit. Companies, in turn, can find out data about you from your Facebook profile using a code called Facebook Pixel. All of this data is fed to marketing companies, who make models to better tailor their advertising. In essence, companies gather all of this data compiled over the years to create a personal profile of who companies think you are. As a result, fine-tuned ads seem so accurate that it feels like they know too much. (4)

Taking some time to explore Facebook’s Ad Preferences page will likely surprise you. A tab that says “Your Interests” may include some correct assessments and some outlandish, far-fetched information. You can be categorized by your cultural affinity, income, phone model, location data, and many other pieces of information. While you do have the option to turn off certain features, the page makes it clear that your every digital step is being cataloged. Whether this makes you nervous or not is up to you to decide, but it’s definitely worth digging through your settings to gain a little more privacy. (5)

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