#109 Is Facebook Spying on You?
November 2, 2017
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This year we’ve gotten one question from listeners more than any other: is Facebook eavesdropping on my conversations and showing me ads based on the things that I say? This week, Alex investigates.
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.
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I'm Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I'm PJ Vogt.
ALEX: So over the course of maybe the past year, we've gotten a fair amount of emails from people who think that Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, are using the microphone on their phone to listen to their conversations and advertise stuff to them, based on the things they're saying.
PJ: Yeah, I have also gotten some of these messages. I've- I basically have felt like I don't — I think it would be such a risky thing for Facebook thing to do, they've been like, "Oh, it's probably just a coincidence, and people are imagining stuff."
ALEX: Yeah, but I've been talking to this guy named JP, and some of the stories that he's been telling me are super hard to dismiss. He told me that he that he first started noticing this happening at the beginning of the year.
JP: I was baking pizza dough. I was, you know, making pizza dough, and I said, "This would be a lot easier if we had one of those fancy Kitchenaid mixers." Ten minutes later, there's an ad for Kitchenaid mixers on sale.
ALEX: Okay wow.
ALEX: Not long after that, JP is in Target, with his partner Gary, and he yells down the aisle "Hey, can you pick up some Red Bull?"
JP: And then I opened Instagram on the way home, you know, I wasn’t driving, I was in the passenger's seat, (laughs) and there was an ad for four new flavors of Red Bull. “Try them now.”
JP: And I was like, “This is insane. This is crazy.” You know, they just kept coming. And I was like, "Let's try something funny." And like we would say something ridiculous, like, "Man, I could really use a pair of really sexy underwear." And like, these weird mesh underwear ads started showing up in our feeds. And it was nonstop
ALEX : And then JP told me a story that just felt really crazy. Let’s call it the perfume story.
JP: The thing that really got us, was uh — my partner's mom came to visit from Oklahoma, a very nice lady, but, you know, doesn't travel that often.
ALEX: Her name’s Debbie, and she was going to visit JP and Gary in San Francisco. And on her way there, she gets a bottle of perfume confiscated by the TSA. So, when she arrives in San Francisco, she says, “Hey, I want to go the perfume store and get a new bottle of perfume.”
JP: And my partner and I, we don't wear colognes, we've never bought perfume that I know of, never search for it. And within 30 minutes, he had opened his Facebook and there was an ad for a women’s perfume store in San Francisco.
PJ: That's weird.
ALEX: Yes! It’s weird!
ALEX: On a scale of like, 1-10, what would you say your belief that this is actually your phone listening to you?
JP: Uh, 10. I’m convinced.
ALEX: Wow. OK.
JP: And it just, it creeps me out. And I have no idea how to stop it. I actually- this week, removed the Facebook app and Facebook Messenger and Instagram from my phone, and now I just have links to the websites. I’m like, this close to just deleting my account.
ALEX: So naturally, the first thing I did was contact Facebook. Ask them for an interview.
PJ: They said no.
ALEX: They said, “No, we won’t do an interview. And also, listening to people’s conversations via the microphone on their phone to target ads to them is not something Facebook does.” They said that unequivocally.
PJ: Right. Which... Again, I don’t think they do it, but if you’re a person who does, you’re like, “Well, of course they would say that. Why are they going to tell you about how they’re secretly spying on you?”
ALEX: Um, right. But the thing is that Facebook wouldn’t offer me a satisfactory explanation as to why these ads were showing up in JP’s feed. So, I looked into this, and after doing some reporting, I realized the reason they don't want to talk to me about this is probably because the technology they use to target people with ads is really invasive. I talked to the guy who first built that technology. His name is Antonio Garcia Martinez. He’s since left Facebook, but he started at the company back in 2011.
ALEX: So just to be clear, there was no targeted ads division before you, right?
ANTONIO GARCIA MARTINEZ: (laughs) You use the term division like a whole part of the company. It was literally me and three engineers.
ANTONIO: Remember, the only Facebook ads were those little postage stamp sized little turds on the right hand side, on the right hand bar. There was no commercial content in feed.
Antonio’s big insight was that they’d make way more money if they just squeezed more information out of their users. And the most obvious piece of information was location. People’s devices were telling Facebook where they were, and the targeted ads team could weaponize that.
ANTONIO: All of location targeting was the responsibility of one guy. He’s a friend of mine, a guy named Pierre. He’s a kind of weird, quirky, idiosyncratic French dude. And he would basically take, you know, the lat/long data off your mobile phone, your check ins, um, you know, IP address lookups, if you’re logging in from a laptop or a desktop machine. And that would kind of go into Pierre’s magic location machine, and out would come a location.
ALEX: Location is important to Facebook because A) Just where you live tells them a ton about the kind of stuff you’re probably interested in. And B) if you suddenly appear in a different location, a location that Facebook doesn't recognize, then it knows that you're traveling.
PJ: So like, with the perfume story, it's like she was telling them that she was traveling even if she didn't realize she was telling them that.
ALEX: And so the next thing I learned was that in 2012, Antonio came up with what is probably his enduring legacy at Facebook — the thing that he will be remembered forever for.
PJ: Which is what?
ALEX: 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, and it’s installed on millions of websites. So when you go to one of these sites with Facebook Pixel on it, it watches what you do and reports that information back to Facebook. It can see how long you linger on a certain webpage, it can see if you purchase something, it can see if you put something in your cart on a website and decide not to buy it. It’s kind of like an internet surveillance camera.
PJ: Got- so that’s why like, that’s why, like, when you look at a pair of shoes or whatever- it follows you around Facebook.
ALEX: It follows you around the internet. Right. There's this app that I use called Ghostery that shows you if Pixel is on a site that you’re visiting. And it'll also show you all the other ad trackers that are on that site. Like, if you go to the New York Times website, there may be 30 or 40 of these trackers.
PJ: Like, as soon as there’s an ad, you basically have to picture 30 or 40 like helpful friendly sales associates like following you around the store–
PJ: –trying to guess how much money’s in your wallet, like, guessing your like weight and age, and like being like, “Oh, he looked at the hooded sweatshirt, oh my god, OK, OK, write that down, write that down, he likes hoodies.”
ALEX: Right, So by 2012, the targeted ads division has figured out how to follow you all around the Internet. They have all this info on everything you’re purchasing, everything you think about purchasing.
But once they figured out 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 were doing offline. And so they figured out a way to buy your personal history.
PJ: So it’s like, I have a file on Alex Goldman. I’ll go buy Alex Goldman’s credit report. I mean, probably not that but–
ALEX: No, yeah. I mean, we don’t know exactly what Facebook is buying, because they’re a black box, but we do know that they’re buying from companies that sell credit reports.
ALEX: Yes. I talked to this reporter from ProPublica, her name is Julia Angwin. She’s investigated a lot of this stuff.
ALEX: Wait, where are they buying this stuff?
JULIA ANGWIN: Oh you can buy this from these delightful places. Uh, one of them just had a big breach, Equifax, you may have heard of them.
ALEX: Yeah, Equifax. Right.
JULIA: Experian, Axiom. You know, there's about- there's tons of them.There’s probably about seven or 10 big ones out there who sell information about your income, the square footage of your house- within 25 square feet.
ALEX: These companies sell information on whether you’ve been married, whether you've been divorced, whether–
PJ: Your credit score?
ALEX: Whether your name has showed up in a lawsuit. They know your income. And you know those loyalty programs that like supermarkets and pharmacies have? The data brokers often run those programs. So they know how often you’re buying diapers or cold medicine or birth control.
PJ: So like, if Debbie had like, a loyalty card at like, her local perfume store. They would know like, this is the type of perfume she buys. And even like, in theory it's like, they would know like, oh and she bought it like eight months ago. Like, she's due for some new like, eau de Debbie, or whatever.
ALEX: (laughs) Absolutely. They're basically learning everything they can about you, and then they break your personality and your interests down into all these hyper-specific traits. And Julia told me there are a ton of these.
JULIA: So, we were able to put together a big database of about 52,000 attributes that Facebook was collecting about its users.
ALEX: (laughs) Oh my god.
JULIA: So they had some categories that were just mind boggling. There was one that was just my favorite called, “a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.”
ALEX: (laughs) How did they even figure that out?
JULIA: I have no idea.
ALEX: There's actually a page on Facebook where you can see how Facebook categorizes you.
PJ: I want to check mine.
ALEX: Ok, so when you go to your Facebook, you go to settings, and then you click on ads. And then, uh, there’s a section called “your information,” and under that you can click “your categories.”
PJ: Your categories.
ALEX: “Close friends of men with a birthday in seven to 30 days.”
PJ: So that's like a reason somebody... That's a category where you're buying perfume for other people. Who are they trying to hint that I need to buy a birthday present for?
ALEX: “Away from family. Gmail user. Millennial.”
PJ: “Housemate-based households: People living in households where one or more people are not immediate members of family. Away from hometown. Frequent traveler.” I don’t know, it’s weird.
ALEX: It is weird. And this is not a complete picture of the information that they have on you. Facebook knows so much more, but they just keep a lot of it secret. And honestly, we only get a real glimpse of how much they know when they screw up. For instance, I talked to Charles Duhigg, he used to work at the New York Times, and he’s written a lot about how big companies track you. And he had this story about a friend of his who learned something really disturbing through Facebook.
So,his friend’s this liberal guy, lives on the East coast.
CHARLES: His brother-in-law lives in another different state, they don’t see him often, but his brother-in-law is kind of one of those, like he’s into guns, and he’s really conservative. But my friend, he wants to have a relationship with his brother-in-law. So like, he like friended him on Facebook and they’ll like cross post, and he always tries to, like, like the posts of his brother in law that aren’t, like, totally crazy.
ALEX: But then this really weird thing started to happen on Charles’ friend’s Facebook feed.
CHARLES: Which is that he saw- he started getting these like, these right-wing political ads that were like a little white supremacist. Like not really white supremacist, right? Because you can’t put white supremacist stuff on Facebook. But it was- it used a lot of the code words.
ALEX: Which freaked Charles’ friend out, because it’s not like he had ever expressed any interest in white supremacy or anything like that. So Thanksgiving rolls around, and he sees his brother-in-law, and he's like, "Hey, um, I've been getting all of this sort of like stuff that feels disconcertingly, to me, like white nationalist or sort of, like racist. And you're probably like the only conservative that I friend online. I'm wondering if you have any idea what this might be happening." And he was like, "Come outside. We need to talk."
ALEX: And they go outside and he says listen, "I disavowed this, I'm not into it anymore. But for a couple of months last year, I was going to a lot of like white pride, white nationalism meetups."
ALEX: Yeah, so one of the things that Facebook can do is if you like something, it can advertise that thing to your friends. So the brother-in-law obviously signaled to Facebook that he was into white supremacy somehow, and Charles’ friend was liking a lot of the guy’s posts, and they were friends on Facebook, so Facebook was like, "Alright, well, why don’t I advertise this white supremacist stuff to you."
PJ: Wow. That's wild. It’s like Facebook built a machine that just like as a side-effect outs white supremacists, but that’s not even like the point of the machine, like, they don’t care. Like, the whole point of it is just to like to learn things about you to sell you crap.
ALEX: Yeah but think about all of the stuff that this thing can do. Like if you look at everything that I just talked about, and you apply it to JP's perfume story, I think it explains it.
PJ: Oh, totally.
ALEX: So, like Debbie is going through the TSA in Oklahoma. She gets her perfume confiscated, and she's like, "Aw, crap. Now I've gotta buy new perfume." She searches for it on her phone.
PJ: She like- she looks at it, she's like, "Oh, it's kind of expensive, I'm not going to buy it right now."
ALEX: Right, but she goes to a page where Facebook has a, has a Pixel on it.
PJ: Facebook knows this person is now in the market to buy perfume. And-
ALEX: And it knows that-
PJ: -she's traveling.
ALEX: She's traveling-
PJ: Right. And they probably know that she’s traveling to visit her son because like he’s her son, he lives in San Francisco. She’s logging in in San Francisco, so is he.
PJ: So why not show the son a perfume ad because he could be like, “Oh mom, isn't this the perfume you like?”
ALEX: (clears throat)
JP: Hi, this is John Paul
ALEX: Hey, this is Alex, how are you doing?
JP: Hey, I’m great how are you?
So I called JP, and I told him that while I couldn't say with 100 percent certainty that Facebook wasn't listening to him, I had a lot of evidence that they just didn't need to.
ALEX: So then Facebook knows that she wants perfume, right?
ALEX: Knowing your relationship, Facebook might have given your partner that ad because it knows that she’s nearby and it knows that she wants perfume.
JP: Okay. (laughs) I mean… So maybe they’re not listening on the microphone, but- I don’t know. It just feels like they are. It’s just really, like, it-it-this is a weird thing we’ve signed up for and--and allowed. You know, thank you for the additional information. I- (stammers and laughs).
ALEX: (laughs) Um–
JP: Oh boy.
ALEX: So I actually kind of thought my work was kind of done here, and then a couple of days later, I got an email from JP with the subject line, “I’m not sure I’m convinced.”
ALEX: And he just told me another story, a story about talking about having a leg cramp, and then getting an ad on Instagram for cramp cream.
PJ: I actually don't find that surprising. Like, I feel like, I think you can learn as much as you want, I don’t think you're ever going to convince anybody who already believes that Facebook is spying on them that they're not. And I think it’s actually Facebook’s fault. Like, they’ve created this problem because they're really good at collecting information about us, they won't be very transparent about what they collect or how. And so, you're basically forcing people to come up with the simplest possible solution for how Facebook knows stuff about them, and that's that they're listening in.
I would be surprised if you could find literally one person in the world who thinks this is happening who you could tell them what you've learned, and they would be like, "Yeah. You're right."
ALEX: I could find one person.
PJ: You cannot find one person. We can- we can literally open the phone lines, we can let people call in, you will not find a person.
PJ: After the break, Alex takes some phone calls.
PJ: Okay, so Alex.
PJ: So I tweeted out, and I just like, “Hey we’re going to take calls. If you believe this thing is true, call in.” Before we even open the phone lines, I just want you to know how screwed you are. (laughs) So like, let me just actually bring it up, hold on.
ALEX: I saw.
PJ: Like, like hundreds of people, I think. Like, everybody thinks this is true. Including like, including tech journalists who I respect a lot. Like it’s not just like a fringe belief. Like everybody thinks this is true. Literally like the VP of Facebook’s ad division jumped in and was like, “We’re not doing this!” And there were just like all these people being like, “You’re lying, you’re lying.”
Like, you are- I think you are walking into something that is maybe a little bigger than either of us realized. And I’m really excited to watch you walk into it.
ALEX: I still think I can do it.
PJ: Okay. let’s take a call. Let's open the phone lines.
ALEX: Sounds good.
ALEX: Hi, who’s this?
MONIQUE: Hi, this is Monique.
ALEX: Hi Monique, this is Alex.
PJ: And PJ.
MONIQUE: Hi guys
PJ: So what’s going on here is that we’re talking to people who believe that Facebook is listening in on them using their microphones. And Alex, who’s done a lot of research, and as far as I can tell believes it’s not happening, he'll try to give you an alternate explanation
MONIQUE: Ok, so I have a very quick story, and this is so funny, I was just telling my friend about this last night. Um, so, a few months ago I was on the phone talking to my friend and she was talking about this device that she had bought, um, to help her open coconuts.
MONIQUE: It was this really weird thing and she was trying to explain--she was explaining this tool, but she couldn't remember the name. And we get off the phone, and then that was it. And maybe 15, 20 minutes later, I’m scrolling on Facebook and I see an ad for this device called the Coco-Jack.
PJ: (laughs) The Coco-Jack?
MONIQUE: I screenshot it. And was like “Is this what you were talking about?” And she was like “Yes.” And ever since then, I’ve been convinced that they’re onto me.
ALEX: OK (clears throat).
PJ: God, this is like watching a conductor warm up.
ALEX: OK, is this person your friend on Facebook?
ALEX: Did she buy the Coco-Jack online?
MONIQUE: I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think she did.
PJ: I just watched a balloon deflate–
ALEX: No! Not necessarily.
ALEX: Do you know where she bought it?
MONIQUE: If I recall correctly, she was in Vegas at some, like um, weird little shop, like “as seen on TV” shop. And she picked it up there.
ALEX: Do you think that she was, like, frustrated by all her coconuts beforehand, and so she Googled like, “How to open coconuts?"
MONIQUE: Perhaps. Maybe. But why would I be seeing it on my- like I saw it on my feed?
ALEX: So Facebook has the ability to follow you around the internet as you browse. When you’re logged into Facebook, and you go to a shopping site, and you put something in your cart, and you decide not to buy it, the site will then transmit that information back to Facebook, saying, “Hey, this person’s really interested in the Coco Jack.” Right?
MONIQUE: Uh huh.
ALEX: So another thing that Facebook does is that it allows advertisers to advertise certain products to the friends of people who have either purchased or shown interest in that product. So your friend-
ALEX: -Being really into the Coco Jack, her favorite new device, might have left some kind of digital trail.
MONIQUE: I think that it’s a possibility, um--the way it happened. It happened so quick. As soon as we were off the phone, not long after I saw it in my feed. So I was convinced, like, oh, they heard me talk about about a coconut opener, and now they’re trying to sell me one. That’s what it looked like.
ALEX: I understand. And that sounds creepy.
ALEX: And I empathize with feeling creeped 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?
MONIQUE: (sighs) You know what? I’m still kind of convinced that they might be listening to me.
ALEX: Aw, Monique! You’re killing me here!
PJ: This is not happening for you today.
MIKE: A coworker of mine had, this is going to sound silly, but she had brought in a brand of cough drop that I had never heard of before. It was new. We were talking about how I'd never heard of this cough drop before, and I didn't Google it. I didn't get on my phone and look it up. And I'm scrolling through Instagram like, maybe an hour later. And all of a sudden, there's an ad for this cough drop.
PJ: Alex Goldman, how do you explain that?
ALEX: Are you friends on Facebook with this friend who suggested, who- who brought in the cough drops.
MIKE: But can I- can I add a caveat?
MIKE: I wasn't friends with them until after the cough drop incident.
PJ: (laughs) You're so screwed.
ALEX: Oh boy.
JASON: We were talking about whether we prefer like a firm or a soft mattress. And a couple days later, I started getting served ads for a mattress company called Casper.
ALEX: So, Casper may have decided that they have, like, not penetrated the market in your town of people who are about to graduate from college and are probably going to need a mattress when they move into their own apartments. It’s very possible they know how much money you make because they buy information about you from data brokers. Facebook buys information.
PJ: Sir, are you finding this convincing?
JASON: It- it’s a decent explanation. It just, like this one sounds as like plausible as, my phone heard me have this conversation with my friend, and immediately after that conversation, I’m immediately being served this ad about mattresses.
ALEX: What could I possibly do to tip the scale in this situation?
PJ: Ok, let’s try another person to see if you have any chance of-
ALEX: Oh I’m definitely- I’m definitely going to convince someone.
PJ: So you are now 0-4?
ALEX: I can’t remember. Three or four.
TOM: Sillicon Valley startup idea of a milkshake.. And then for the next week I saw ads for Soylent in my Facebook scroll.
ALEX: And like what was the lag time between you mentioning it and seeing Soylent ads?
TOM: So I was visiting some family in a different town, and I remember the next week when I came back. It was within a couple of days.
ALEX: OK. Where were you visiting, and where do you live?
TOM: So I live in Des Moines, Iowa.
TOM: And I was visiting my wife's cousins in Kansas City.
ALEX: OK. Both hotbeds of Soylent consumption. Do you have any friends who, um, consume Soylent?
TOM: Um, I had a coworker who was trying it for a while.
ALEX: Uh, around--
TOM: But I don't think I'm friends with them on Facebook.
ALEX: Do you have any friends who live in San Francisco?
TOM: Uh… No.
ALEX: Can you (laughing)? PJ has to keep turning away from me because he's laughing too hard about my futile attempts to convince people that-
PJ: I've never watched anyone do something so badly.
PJ: It’s like watching someone in the Olympics just fall down (laughs).
PJ: I didn’t think this would go like perfectly, but I did not think it would go this catastrophically so fast (laughs).
ALEX: What am I supposed to do? The problem here, which is the same problem with reporting out this story, is that Facebook not only is like a black box that tends to 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 ad got served to this gentleman,” the people of Facebook would say like, "I don't know the answer to that."
PJ: I feel like you're reverse convincing me.
ALEX: What, like now-
PJ: I feel like I'm starting to go to the other side now.
JULIA: Hi, uh, my name is Julia.
ALEX: This is Alex. How are you doing?
JULIA: I’m great. How are you?
ALEX: I’m good. I’m going to try and convince you that Facebook is not listening to you. Is Facebook listening to you?
JULIA: Oh. 1000 percent. Um, so I was at a friend's house a few weeks ago.
JULIA: We were talking about a guy that she went to high school with, and I went to college with. We did not look him up. We did not google him. We did not go on his Instagram or his Facebook.
JULIA: And the next day, both of us got him as a recommended follow on Instagram.
JULIA: And this is like not somebody who I had interacted with online literally in any capacity for like a good many years. And it was both of us that got the recommended follow, and you don't get the recommended follows that often. So, it's definitely listening to me.
ALEX: PJ’s- PJ is smirking at me because he thinks that I can't answer this.
PJ: No, I'm just smiling because your face is covered in flop sweat
ALEX: And you're absolutely right that I can't answer this one.
ALEX: Because 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't answer this one.
JULIA: I do it tells you though that the microphone is definitely listening.
ALEX: Uh- I-
JULIA: What it's being used for…
ALEX: PJ can’t- PJ can't keep it together. He's losing his mind. He thinks this is so funny.
PJ: (laughing) I just think it's funny because Alex had a lot of confidence (laughing harder, barely audible) he would have all the answers, and would be able to explain it to people.
ALEX: (laughing) I'm sorry Julia, I can't answer this one. I going to have to let you go. Maybe they're listening to you, and suggesting friends based on that, but I haven't been paying attention to that.
PJ: (laughing) Wait--wait--you're giving up instead.
ALEX: (laughing) I'm sorry?
JULIA: [Skype breaking up] You need to follow this. I do think it is like irrefutably the microphone is on.
JULIA: I think this is fair.
PJ: You're not even arguing, Alex!
ALEX: Why would I argue? He's like, "Why aren't you arguing? Why aren't you arguing?" I don't know anything about how they decide who they should suggest to you as friends. They could be.
JULIA: But don't you think this means that like the microphone is on, and is listening, and is recording information.
ALEX: I have no idea.
PJ: (laughing) Oh my god.
ALEX: PJ can't take it. You need to pull yourself together. I've got to convince someone before the end of the day, and I'm definitely not going to do it with Julia.
PJ: (laughing) Well, I think that your argument is that maybe the microphone is listening to you is not going to convince anybody that the microphone is not listening.
ALEX: (laughing) It might. It might.
PJ: Julia, thank you so much.
ALEX: So, I wasn't able to convince anybody, but whether you think Facebook is listening to you or not, we are going to put a bunch of information up on our website about how to prevent them from tracking you as much as they do. And if you do believe that Facebook is listening to you, we'll also have instructions on there for how to disable the microphone privileges for your Facebook app. You can find it at replyall.limo/donttrackme.
Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. Production help from Jon Hanrahan. Our editor is Tim Howard. Our intern is Anna Foley. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. The show was mixed by Rick Kwan.
Special thanks this week to Zoe Kleiman, Christine McClellan and Emily Taylor. Matt Lieber is sitting on your couch and looking around at how nice your house looks after you just cleaned it. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in two weeks.