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Facebook Denies Reports of Eavesdropping on Cell Phone Users

Facebook has officially denied rumors that its smartphone application is eavesdropping on users.

The latest of many surveillance controversies to hound Facebook, which is notorious for aggressively harvesting mountains of data about its users and using it for targeted advertising, began when University of South Florida professor Kelli Burns tested the Facebook app’s ability to pick up buzz words from casual conversation. She mentioned Jeeps and African safaris out loud, within earshot of her phone, and found that within 60 seconds, her Facebook newsfeed was throwing safari stories and Jeep advertisements at her.

Facebook’s statement of denial reads, in its entirety:

Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.

We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.

It’s worth noting that Burns specifically stated she activate the microphone feature before conducting her test. The original local news report on the experiment didn’t state whether she had activated one of the explicitly sound-sensing features Facebook’s statement referred to.

It would still be creepy if an application the user had deliberately invoked to, say, identify a song playing on the radio was also listening to conversation in the background, and harvesting key words to target advertising.

In any event, Facebook’s statement denied the app was doing anything of the sort. The current version of the app can activate the microphone and listen to ambient noise when users are composing a status update, but only when the user selects options like “Listening To” or “Watching,” which are specific instructions for the app to identify the song or television show playing in the background.

Naked Security suggests that the original news report sensationalized what Burns said about the Facebook app:

Despite the TV station’s unequivocal (and misleading) language that “when your mic in on, [Facebook] listens for buzzwords,” Burns admitted that she wasn’t really convinced Facebook is listening to people through their microphones.

As Burns told the news network, it could just be a coincidence.

Granted, it’s an intriguingly specific coincidence, but Facebook is up front about using the data voluntarily provided by users in their profiles to target advertising, which may have given the program other reasons to think Burns was interested in safaris and Jeeps. (Indeed, she later clarified that one of her friends posted the safari story that appeared in her Facebook feed.)

New Zealand’s Stuff website notes that Burns used her blog to complain that her statements were misinterpreted by the press: “This story has really gotten out of hand. I really don’t think Facebook is eavesdropping on us. I don’t believe it and I don’t have any evidence of it.”

“Although the angle of the story was supportive of the idea that Facebook uses the microphone I never made the claim that I believe that is happening, or that my one experiment with a reporter was in any way proof of that happening,” Burns told the BBC.

“I believe there are a lot of strange circumstances and coincidences out there and people are looking for those,” she continued. “The fact that this story has gone global says a lot about people’s concerns about privacy. I am not a scientist or a privacy expert – but I never said in that story that I believe Facebook can hear you.”

Stuff cheerfully suggests its readers should nevertheless continue worrying about their online privacy, because Facebook does harvest a tremendous amount of information about users, including their browsing data. It’s even harvesting data about people who aren’t Facebook users.

Interesting side note: When the UK Telegraph sought to debunk the original Florida news report that quoted Burns, it observed that if an application were to eavesdrop on phone users through their microphones, it would drain the phone’s battery very quickly… but the BBC reports that security experts have created an app that can “listen in to conversations for prolonged periods without draining the phone’s battery.”

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