Facebook users have continuously worried that the social media platform’s mobile apps, including Instagram, listen in on our conversations. It’s such a widespread concern that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to address it in a congressional hearing on privacy this week, where he called the notion a “conspiracy theory.”
I hate to break it to everyone, but as far as we can tell, Facebook’s eavesdropping is a myth. Although I understand why the myth exists. People see eerily exact, targeted ads — sometimes about things they just discussed with friends — and they have to question what’s really happening behind the scenes. How does Facebook know what I’m talking about, and why am I getting served these ads at this exact moment?
It’s not your actual conversations that lead to ad targeting; it’s everything else that you do offline and online. The company knows your browsing habits because of trackers like its own Facebook Pixel and those “Like” buttons all over the internet that report back your web activity. It also knows your self-identified demographics; your location because of its app permissions; your friends and family; your real-world purchases; and what you look like because of your uploaded photos. The company knows a lot about you! Just not what you say, exactly. Plus, it would violate wiretapping laws, and Facebook really doesn’t need to go that far to confirm what it already knows about us.