Is Facebook eavesdropping on us?

Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor, told a media outlet that she thought Facebook was listening to user conversations in order to better target advertising. The social media giant denies the claims.

Eric Risberg/AP Photo/File
In this April photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. A mass communications professor suggests that Facebook uses your smartphone's microphone to listen to conversations and target ads to you.

After rumors surfaced that Facebook might be listening in to private conversations using smartphone microphones, the social media platform hurried to put those fears to rest.

The idea arose when Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, floated the idea that Facebook may be using recorded user conversations in order to better target advertising.

Users were alarmed, but Facebook says that the rumors simply are not true.

“We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission,” Facebook wrote in a blog post on Thursday, “and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”

Dr. Burns says she tested her theory by discussing certain topics near the phone. Facebook soon showed advertising for items or services related to her conversations, she says.

Despite her findings, Burns did tell the Independent that she is not certain that the site is eavesdropping. Facebook may simply mine data from her web searches to target advertising, she said, but using audio data would not be out of character for the site.

When Facebook first introduced apps that could access phone microphones in 2014, it faced user concerns that the social media platform would be “always listening.”

Both in 2014 and this week, Facebook maintained that it did not listen to raw data, and that it only collects any sort of microphone data if users have given the app permission.

Phones do “listen” to what is going on around the phone, making it easier to post about a TV show or movie that users are watching, Tech Times reports. Users can do away with this feature simply by turning off the microphone in their phone’s settings.

Other companies have faced similar data collection concerns. Just last month, chief economic researcher at Uber, Keith Chen, discussed the information Uber gathers on its users.

Uber collects a multitude of data on its users, Dr. Chen told NPR, including information about how much battery life phones have remaining – because Uber knows that users are more likely to accept surge prices when phone batteries are low.

Not that they would use that information, of course.

According to Chen, Uber has “procedures” in place to ensure that it isn’t using data in an intrusive way.

“And we absolutely don't use that to kind of like push you a higher surge price,” Chen said on NPR, “but it's an interesting kind of psychological fact of human behavior.”

In another case earlier this month, Gizmodo reported that the FBI “can neither confirm nor deny” that it has ever wiretapped an Amazon Echo.

Echoes are the quintessential “always listening” device, ready to play music or look up directions for users at a word.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint in 2015 against Uber’s data collection, saying that changes to the app “threaten the privacy rights and personal safety of American consumers, ignore past bad practices of the company involving the misuse of location data, pose a direct risk of consumer harm, and constitute an unfair and deceptive trade practice subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.”

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