Sometime last year, I brought some almond cookies back to my dorm and then gave them to a friend to try. She liked them. An hour later, she came back to find me, telling me that an ad for the exact cookies had just appeared on her Facebook feed. She had not searched for the product online nor had she seen the ad before our conversation.
Was Facebook listening?
After seeing that the app sought access to “microphone permissions,” I searched online for an answer and found that no, the social networking site did not appear to be listening in on spoken conversations. As Fatemeh Khatibloo from Forbes explains, Facebook would need enormous data storage on our phones and heavy-weight “technical capabilities required to 1) listen to an ambient conversation on a mobile device; 2) identify specific terms or phrases; and 3) funnel those interests and propensities to audiences for ad targeting.” He writes that this is “technically very challenging.”
Recently, Facebook has come under fire for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which data from 87 million people was illegally harvested and possibly stored in Russia, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie. This, of course, has brought up questions of privacy concerns. What type of information does Facebook collect? What do they do with that information, outside of using for ad-related purposes? What if the information falls into the wrong hands?
I decided to see for myself exactly what information Facebook has on me. I went into my account settings and clicked on “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” A few minutes later, I received an email with a link that led me to my file.
Photos, messages, contacts—although it was jarring to see them stored in one place, I more or less expected Facebook to retain this information. What surprised me was that Facebook kept log of my location each time I logged in, monitored which ads I clicked on, and had a list of all of the companies they had given my contact information to. It was as if I was being monitored, down to each time I clicked my mouse.
When Facebook changed its motto last year from “Move fast and break things” to “Making the world more open and connected,” it changed some of the norms surrounding online privacy. “With about two-thirds of the world’s population not yet online, we want to connect the unconnected. To achieve this, we know we have to break some barriers and create a new set of technologies in the process,” writes Yael Maguire, director of Facebook’s Hardware and Engineering Connectivity Lab. However admirable their motto and mission, the question is: connectivity at what cost?
Facebook can justify every breach of privacy by their seemingly noble intentions, labeling such action as “breaking some barriers,” framing it in some remarkable, innovative light and equating it to “going outside the box.” Really, though, it can mean rewriting the rules and keeping us out of the loop. And so the next step should be a simple one: delete Facebook. But it doesn’t feel that easy.
Why I am reluctant to delete my Facebook account lies in how integrated it has become in my daily life. I prefer Facebook Messenger to normal texting; without always realizing it, I scroll through posts absentmindedly when I need a break; I use it to learn about events happening on campus; it comes in handy if I need to know what someone looks like before I meet them in person. And of course, it keeps us connected with people far away — that high school friend across the country, the relatives a few time zones away from us.
If we use Facebook the way it is supposed to be used — responsibly, perhaps minimally, as a social networking tool and without revealing too much personal information — then I believe that it is perfectly fine to use the website. But when Facebook starts to resemble more of a lifestyle than a social networking site, when I provide it with too much data it can use, that’s where I draw the line.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.