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#109 Is Facebook Spying on You?


This year we’ve gotten one question more than any other from listeners: is Facebook eavesdropping on my conversations and showing me ads based on the things that I say? This week, Alex investigates.

Further Reading

Our guide to keep Facebook from following you around the internet can be found at http://replyall.limo/donttrackme .

Facebook's official statement that it is not listening to users.

Facebook's Rob Goldman (no relation) denying the same thing.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This episode is brought to you by better for him, a new podcast from eighty people. In each episode Francesca Ramsay talks to visionaries in business leaders about mistakes. They ve made how they work their way through them and came out better for Listen on Spotify or wherever you get. Your pot casts This episode is brought to you by a Sana. A saga is an app designed to help teams plan, organise and execute all the work they do together. It helps you make sure nothing falls through the cracks, so you can focus on the work that matters most learn more and try us honour for free visit, assign dot com to get started. That's a ass, a dot com.
From gimlets this reply. I am out scope, I'm he gave up T J, yes, hi, hello, so over the course of maybe the past year we ve got a fair amount of emails from people who that Facebook and Instagram which is owned by Facebook, are using. Microphone on their phone, too listen to their conversations and advertise stuff to them, based on the things there saying. Yes, I have also done to these messages. I've I basically have just fell, I don't think he's had a risky thing for Facebook today been like. Oh it's probably just coincidence, said people have matching stuff yeah, but I've been talking to this guy named J P and some of the stories that he's been telling me are super hard to dismiss. He told me the heat first started noticing this happening at the beginning of the year. I was big
pizza doll. I was making he started. This would be a lot easier if we had one of those. It's a kitchen mixers. Ten minutes later, there's an ad for Amazon. Kids mixers on sale. Ok! Well, now long after that, J P, is in target with his partner Gary and he s down the aisle hey. Can you pick up some red ball and then I opened Sir Grandma, on the way home I was driving, in the past, their seats and there's an advert for new flavors of red ball. Try them now- and I was like this- has been saying. This is crazy. They just coming as it. Let's try something funny and we would say something ridiculous lake man It really is a pair of really sexy underwear and like this, weird NASH, underwear out started showing up in our fleets and it was nonstop and then J P told me a story that just how really crazy? Let's call it the perfume story, the thing that really got us was
my partners. Man came to visit from very nice lady, but you know doesnt traveller after her name Abby and she was going to visit J P in Derry in San Francisco and way there. She gets a bottle of perfume confiscated by the two So when she rise in San Francisco, she says: hey, I want to go to the perfume store and get a new battle of perfume and my partner we don't work alone. We ve never bought perfume that I know of ever search for it and within thirty minutes he had and his facebook- and there is an ad for women's perfume store in San Francisco. That's weird! Yes, it's weird on a scale of like one to ten. What would you say? Your belief is that this is actually your phone listening to ten convinced, ok- and it just keeps me
and I have no idea how to stop it actually this week, remove the facebook gap. Faced with MR ended, threw him from my phone and now I just have links to the websites and lake this close to just deleting my account so naturally, the first thing I did, whereas Contact Facebook asked them for. Reveal it had now. They said no, we won't do an interview and also listen. Two peoples. Conversations via the microphone on their phone to target as to them is not something Facebook does they said that unequivocally right which again, I don't think they do it, but if you're, a person who does you're like Wolf, corset, Why are they can tell you right after secretly, spying on you right, but the thing is that face
book Wooden- offer me a satisfactory explanation as to why these adds were showing up and J peace feed. So I looked into this and after doing some reporting realized. The reason they don't want to talk to you about. This is probably because- the technology they use to target people. Heads is really invasive. I talked to the guy who first built that technologies name is Antonio, Garcia, Martinez. He since left Facebook, but he started at the company back in two thousand So just to be clear, there was no targeted adds division before you right. He is the term vision, FUCK Paul part of the camp. It was literally in three engineers. Ok, remember the only Facebook gods were those little postage stamp. Sized little turns the right hand side of on the right hand bar there is no. There is no commercial continent. Cheap antonios. Big insight was. It would make way more money if they just
these more information out of their users and the most obvious of information was location. People's devices were telling Facebook where they were. And the targeted adds team could weapon eyes that all of ok, targeting was there. Possibility of one guy he's a friend of mine, a guy named Pierre he's, a kind of weird quirky, idiosyncratic french dude, and you know he would basically take you know the last long data off your mobile phone, your checking since you know, I appeared I look up if you're, if you're logging, in from like a laptop or a desktop machine, and now Go cardamon like Pierre, is magic location machine and would come a location, locate it's important to Facebook, because a just where you live, tells them a ton about the kind of stuff. Probably interested in and be if you suddenly appear different location, a location that Facebook doesn't recognise that it knows that your travelling solely with the perfume story, it's like
She was telling them that she was traveling even if she and realise the it time that yes, interesting and so the next thing learned, was that in twenty twelve Antonio came up with What is probably his enduring legacy at Facebook? The thing he will be remembered for ever for which is what so he wanted to figure out a way to keep tracking people after they left. Facebook, like to be able to see what they were doing all across the internet, and so he developed this thing. That's now called Facebook pixel. Its installed on millions of websites, so when you go to one of these data facebook pixel on it. It watches what you do and reports that information directive. Spock. It can see how long you linger on a certain web page. It can see if you purchase something it can see. If you put something in your card on a website and decide not to buy it, it's kind of like an internet surveillance camera got so that's why, like
That's. Why like, when you get a pair of shoes or whenever it follow your internet right, there's right up. I use this go street shows you if pixel is installed on a site that your visiting and it'll also show you all the other add trackers that are on that site, like you go to the New York Times website there, maybe thirty or forty, these trackers, as soon as there is an ad you basis to picture thirty or forty like helpful, friendly sales associates like falling you're on this Are you trying to get some information? Your wallet like guessing you're like weight and age and, like me, like Georgia, sweatshirt. Oh my god. Ok, ok. I write that down right. There. He likes eddies right so by two thousand. Twelve the targeted as division is figured out how to follow you all around the internet. They have all this info everything your purchasing everything you think about purchasing, but once they forget that they could do this, they got like data hungry. They weren't just interested in the information that you could give them online. They wanted to know things about what you
doing offline, and so they figured out a way to buy your personal history. So it's like I have a file on ours, Goldman I'll, go by out on credit report. I'm you probably not that no yeah, I mean we don't know exactly what Facebook is buying, because there are black. Acts, but we do know that their buying from companies that sell credit report Really. Yes, I talked to the reporter from proper. Her name's Julie, Julia she's, investigated allotted stuff, wait where they buy. Oh, you can buy this from these delightful places. Are one of them had a big breach? Equifax make refer to them. Experience axiom there's about new others. There's tons of them, therefore, about seven or ten big ones out there who sell information about your income, the square footage of your house within twenty five square feet these companies cell information on whether you ve been married, whether you ve, been divorced. We're ready or whether your name is showed up in a lawsuit. They know your income and you know those loyalty.
Programmes that, like supermarkets in pharmacies have, the data brokers often run those programmes. So they know how often you're buying tapers or cold medicine or birth control so like if Debbie had like got loyalty card at like her local perfume store. They would know I visited perfume, she buys and even like in theory, it's like they would know like when she bought it. Like eight months ago, lay she's due for some new, like Eau de Debbie or when absolutely their basic, learning everything they can about you, and then they break your purse. Reality in your interests down into all of these hyper specific traits and Juliet me that there are a ton of these is so we were able to put together a big database of about fifty two thousand attributes that Facebook was collecting about agents on earth right, fifty two thousand, so they had some categories that we're just mind bottle, There was one that is my favorite called a person who likes to pretend to tat an awkward situations
The figures that I have no idea there is actually a page on Facebook, where you can see how Facebook categorizes you I wouldn't like mine. Ok! So when you go in your facebook, you go to settings and then you click on ads, and then there is a second hold your information and under that you can click. Your categories requires close friends of men with a birthday and seven to thirty days so. That's like a reason, somebody that's a category where you're buying perfume further people, who are they trying to him that I need to buy a birthday present for away from family, Gmail, user millennial, housemate based households, people living in those were wine or more people are not a media arson family away from home town, fragrant traveller. Now it's weird it weird- and this is not a complete picture of the information that they have a new facebook knew so much more, but they just keep a lot.
Secret and honestly, we only get a glimpse of how much they know when they screw up. For instance, I talked to Charles. Do him he's the work of the New York Times and he's written a lot about how big companies track you, and he has a story about a friend of his. Who learned something really disturbing through Facebook. So his this liberal guy lives on the EAST coast, his brother while lives and other state. They don't seem that often but his brothers, while I kind of, is like one of these kind of like even the guns and he's really serve at it. But this is my friend once a relationship with his brother, Lhasa. You, like you friend it him on Facebook and the Like cross posts in areas tries to like, like a post of his brother in law that are like totally crazy. But then this really weird things started to happen on Charles, his friends, Facebook feed. Which is that he saw you started getting these like these. Rightly political adds that were like
a little white supremacist like not really white, supremacist rakers, UKIP White Supremacist up on on Facebook, but it was. It was used a lot of the code words we freaked Charles's friend out, because it's not like he had ever expressed any interest in white supremacy or anything like that. So thanksgiving rules around any sees his brother in law. He's like hey, I've getting all of this sort of like stuff. That feels disconcerting. Let me work white, nationalist or sort of like racist you're, probably like the only conservative that I friend on line and wondering if you have any idea what this might be happening and he was come outside. We need to talk and they go outside and he says: listen, I've disavowed this, I'm not into it anymore, but for a couple months last year I was go to a lot of like white pride way. National. His aunt meet ups, yeah. So one of the things that Facebook can do is if you like,
something it can advertise. That thing to your friends The brother in law obviously signalled to Facebook that he was into wait, supremacy somehow an Charles S, friend was lacking a lot, the guys posts and they were friends on Facebook so face because, like our aid well, why don't I advertise this white supremacist stuff after you that's wild Facebook built a machine that just like as a side effect out white supremacist. But that's not even the point. The machine like they don't care like the whole point of it is just like a learned things about you to sell you crap, yeah, but think about all the stuff that this thing can do like If you look at everything that I just talked about, and you apply it to J Peace, perfume story, I think it explains how totally So, like Debbie is going through the ts, ain't Oklahoma, she gets a perfume confiscated, gated and she's like crap. Now I'm gonna buy new perfume, she searches for it on your phone. She
she looks ashes, allows kind expensive, not inspiring right, but she goes to a page where Facebook has, as a pixel obviously goes. This person is now in the market by, and and it knows that she's travel she's travelling right and they probably know that she's travelling to visit her son could like he's her son. He wasn't M Cisco, she's logging in it, emphasis, go so re. So why not show the son of her few mad because he could be like Oh mom, business, perfume! You like exactly Is it your home hey? This is Alex, hey do in Hamburg Cycle J P, and I told him that, well, I couldn't say with one hundred percent certainty that Facebook wasn't listening to him. I have a lot of evidence that they just didn't need to. So then Facebook knows that she wants perfume knowing your relationship Facebook might have given. Or partner that add, because it now
Is that she's near by and it no, is that she wants perfume. Ok, so maybe then, listening on the microphone, but I don't know it just does it feels like they? Are? It's just really like it This is a weird thing we ve signed up for and and allowed thank you for the addition information boy, so I actually kind of my work was done here then, a couple days later I got an email from J P. With the subject line, I'm not sure
convinced you just told me another story, a story about talking having a leg, cramp and then getting an add on Instagram for cramp cream. I actually don't by those uprising like I feel like. I think you can learn as much as you want. I only you're ever getting to anybody who already believes that Facebook is by another, not- and I think it's actually facebooks fall like these. Three this problem, because the really good What information about us they won't, be very transparent about what they collect or how and so your basic forcing people to come up with the simplest possible solution for how Facebook knows about them and that's a there listening in. I would be surprised if you could find it literally one person the world who thinks this is happening or you could tell them what you ve learned and every like yeah you're right. I can find one person you
nothing one person we can. We can literally open if airlines we leave you behind. You will not find a person, ok after the break, access and found cos this episode is brought few by better for him, a new podcast from HTTP hosted by Francesca Ramsay. We are making
takes better, for it looks at how mistakes have shaped the lives and careers of visionaries and business leaders and helps them think differently about what their working for you'll hear from an entrepreneur who ventured out on his, and so I went out. I took seven hundred dollars. I had in the bank, but my own pickup truck took some flyers business cards in a week later I had a business and H our role breaker, whose learned why we all care about work in the first place. You wanted to proud of the work that you do. You want to be able to tell your friends about you, wanna, be able to feel like you're, making a difference, you'll hear how they work their way through their mistakes and came out better point. Listen on Spotify or wherever you get your pockets. This episode is brought to you by a sauna
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so like hey, we're anti cause. If you believe the thing is true calling before Over the phone lines, I just want you to ask so lake of each is actually bring output. Eyes saw like, like hundreds of people think like everybody thinks this is true, including like including tech journalists to respect a lot like it sounds like a friendly, like everybody thinks this is true literally like the VP of Facebook. Add division jumped in. It, was like we're not doing this and are all these people to speak. Like your line, you're lying like you, are, I think, you're walking into some years, maybe a little bigger than either of us rose. I really excited, wants you walk into it still thing I can do it lets take up. That's over the phone lines sounds good, hello, high. I resist unique I'm on it? This is Alex and PJ's. So what's going on here, is that we're talking to people who believe that Facebook is
and on them using their microphones and Alex, who sent a bunch of research and, as far as I can tell believes its not happening he'll? Try to give you an alternate explanation? Ok, so I have a very quick story and little so bunny. I was just telling way bring about the last night. I'm so a few months ago I was on the phone talking to my friend and she was telling me about this device that she had bought to help her open coconut. While a weird thing interest he explaining this tool, but you couldn't remember the name and we got off the phone and not with that. Maybe fifteen twenty minutes later, I'm scrolling on facebook- and I see an odd where this device called the cocoa job culture. A screenshot link. Is this what you are talking about, she's like Yahoo and everything that I've been. Can
but their onto me. Ok, oh hi! This is like watching a conductor. Warmer, ok is. Is this person your front on Facebook? Yes, did she by the cocoa Jack online? I dont know for sure, but I don't think she did I just watch the balloon deflate. No, not necessarily! Ok. Do you know where she bought it. If I recall correctly, she was in Vegas at some length, weird little shopping, asking on tv shot and she picked it up there. Do you think that she was like frustrated by all her cocoanuts beforehand, and so she googled like out open coconuts, perhaps maybe, but why would I be seeing it on my like? I saw it on my feet. So Facebook has the ability to follow you around the internet as you browse when you're logged into Facebook and you go to the shopping site, and you put something in your cart. You decide,
this site will then transmit that information back to Facebook, saying hey dispersants, really stood in the cocoa jack right. So another thing that Facebook does is it allows advertisers to advertise certain products to the friends of people who have either purchased or shown interest in that product, so your France being really into the cocoa jack, her favorite new. Device might have left some kind of digital trail. I think possibility that we have. It happened so quick as soon as we hope, a phone you know not long after I thought it might be shows convince like. Oh, they heard me talk about a coconut opener, another trying to sell me one. I put it look like I understand, and that sounds
be, and I sympathise with being crept out by it, but given an alternate explanation that does not require Facebook to be clandestinely. Listening to you using your microphone, which one feels more likely to you, I'm kind of convinced that they may be listening to me, but it does have the real reason I may coworker man had gonna Sancho. It but she had brought in a brand of coffee drop that I had never before knew. We were talking about how I never heard of the proper for and adding
I didn't get on my phone and look it up and stronger its grand, like maybe an hour later, and all the candles and add to the call from our common. How do you explain that? Are you friends on Facebook with this friend who who brought in the contracts? Yes, ok? Can I can I have your chair. I was friends with them until after the copper ombudsman boy, whether a firmer assault, Mandrake ended a couple days later. I saw getting served ads for a mattress company called Casper, so Casper may have decided that they have like not penetrated the market in your town of people who are about to graduate college. Probably going to need a mattress when they move into their own apartments is very
possible that they know how much money you make because they by information about you from data brokers, face buys it or are you finding this convincing? It isn t the explanation and need just this. One sounds as like plausible, as my phone heard me haven't. Precision with my friends and I immediately after the conversation I'm being served as that about mattresses. What could I possibly due to tip the scale and this situation I got up up up up up up up up ok. Let's try to see if there is any chance of everywhere. You know me, I'm definitely going to convince, and so you are now dear, for I can remember three or four belly like you have another drink and then for the next week I thought fared for silent,
Facebook sprawl and like what was the last time between you, mentioning it in seeing soil and adds, I was visiting family, And a different town- and I remember the next week when I came back to within a couple of days: ok, where were you visiting and where, you live. I was in the mine and I was visiting my wife's cousin in Kansas City? Ok, both hotbeds of soil and consumption, Germany, friends, you consume soil, it I had a worker who was crying at her while I really don't think I'm friends with them on Facebook, Germany, for and who live in San Francisco. Now, can you
DJ, had to keep turning away from me, he's laughing too hard about my futile attempts to convince people that there was a war one of the Olympics it up. I didn't think this will go like perfectly, but I did not think it will go this catastrophically. What am I supposed to do the problem here and which is the same problem with reporting of this story? Is at Facebook? Not only is like a black box that Hence do not want to tell you about how their stuff works. It is done using so many complex algorithms. That they don't even know. If I was like hey tell me how this had got serve to this gentlemen, the people of facebook- what's it like, I don't know yet I feel like you're, reverse convincing. What are you now, I'm sorry to go? The other side now. Hi. I'm writing Julia. This is allocated to it
Great hurry. You I'm good I'm going to try and convince you that Facebook is not listening to. You is Facebook. Listening to you, one thousand words that I would add a rang out weeks ago, we are talking about a guy that she went behind glass and I went to college. Where did not look him up? We did not Google here. We did not go into it into grammar his day book Oak again. The next day, both of us got him has recommended, follow on Instagram amid the boy, not someone he knew. I had interacted with online, literally in any capacity for lake. A good many years, and it would both about the got the recommended follow an you. Don't get the recommended followed that Adele indefinitely, listening, PJ's smirking at me, because he thinks that I can answer. No, I'm just smiling because your face is covered in fog, sweat and your
absolutely right that I can answer this one up ad targeting and the people you may know. Data sets are totally separate. I don't I haven't been researching this. I have no idea I have. I can answer this one. I didn't tell you, though, that the microphone is definitely listening. What I've been For my part, I can get together he's losing his mind. He thinks this is so, for I think, is very because Alex had a lot of confidence had their wives I sorry Julia. I can answer this going to. Let you go that maybe they're listening to you and suggesting friends based on that, but
I haven't done jumped up near the bottom of it. I knew it is like irretrievably, the microphone ogling, that they do not have a good book keeping Why weren't? Why? When I argue he's like wired, you arguing wired, you arguing, I don't know anything about how they go. They decide who they should suggestion with friends they could be, but don't you think it's like the microphone it on and listening and is recording information. I have no idea that a rigid again do you need to pull yourself together, got a convinced someone before the end of the day, and I am definitely not gonna- do a julia who want you with your argue. People of my report is that it might might Julia.
So I was unable to convince anybody, but whether you think sport is listening to you or not. We are going to a bunch of information up on our website about how to proceed. Then, from tracking you as much as they do, and if you do, The Facebook is listening to you also have instructions on there for how to disable the microphone privileges for your facebook up. You can find it reply all thought. Limo slashed don't track me reply always PDA vote me Alex Haldeman. We are produced this week, we ve been in any be abandoned. And damietta marketing production. From John Hanrahan are
dearest him. Howard are in turn, is Anna, fully backtracking by show Harris. The show is mixed by requiring special thanks this week to so we climate, Christine Mc Clellan and Emily Taylor matters, is sitting on your couch and looking around it. How nice your house looks after you just clean them. Our theme song by the mysterious, great master, cylinder and our add music is by bill buildings. You can listen to the show. An apple podcast, Spotify Where do you get your podcast? They for listening will see in two weeks is that him off author stupid? Ah hey that reminds me. I have this thing his empty convergence in the back of an over. I don't know what there but I think than theirs, and then I forget about this thing: it's based,
they converge over the finding of a ban. Howard on and it triggers musical notes, if you wave it around and three dimensional space risky coercion. Often our tying? These things to bees and the late night is Obviously they resolve its ways. We can catch up my eyes airtight on ok go it's a visa is confirmed yeah,
Martha Stewart.
Transcript generated on 2020-02-13.