Which app do you use regularly

Smartphone app: is Facebook listening in on conversations?

Status: 25.03.2019 6:00 p.m. | archive

Anyone who uses the social networks Facebook or Instagram will be shown advertising in the respective smartphone app. Many users have noticed that they are seeing advertisements on topics or brands that they have recently talked about. For years there have been rumors that Facebook could overhear its users' private conversations through the microphone of their smartphone and use the collected data for personalized advertising. Facebook denies that.

In Germany alone, Facebook claims to have 32 million registered users, and worldwide there are almost 2.3 billion. The group also has access to Instagram and WhatsApp user data, which have belonged to Facebook since 2012 and 2014, respectively.

User complaints are increasing

At the request of Markt, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information confirmed in the late summer of 2018 that the complaints from users regarding the suspicions about wiretapping had increased in the months before. However, according to its own statements, the authority lacked the staff to investigate the suspicions in detail. The authority is responsible for Facebook because the group has its German headquarters in Hamburg.

Suspected wiretapping: So far no evidence

In June 2018, Facebook applied for a patent for a technology that should enable the company to evaluate ambient noise with the user's smartphone. At that time, the group announced that it was customary to file patents in order to prevent advances by other companies.

Computer science expert Professor Hannes Federrath from the University of Hamburg confirms that listening to and evaluating speech is already technically possible: As soon as the user of a smartphone app allows access to the microphone, the program can use the built-in microphone.

In various studies, however, the expert has not yet been able to find any indications that apps are recording speech unnoticed in the background and evaluating the data on the smartphone or on servers.

Experiment: is Facebook listening in?

Markt tried to test the suspicion in an experiment. The editorial team used four smartphones for this:

  • two iPhones with the iOS operating system
  • two devices with the Android operating system

The microphone inputs of one of the two smartphones ("control cell phone") were masked off, while the other cell phones remained free. Are there any differences between which advertisements appear on the masked cell phones and on the cell phones with open microphones?

All four smartphones were reset to the factory settings for the test. The Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram apps were then installed with identical access rights, such as location sharing and access to the microphone and camera.

A different user profile was used for each mobile phone, but with the same personal information such as age, gender and place of residence. Only the names and the stored e-mail addresses differ.

Results of the wiretapping experiment

  • Test phase 1: All apps remain closed. For a few days, the testers regularly talk about predetermined topics such as fashion, cosmetics, wedding dresses and holiday destinations while their smartphones are in the same room. During the evaluation after a few days, advertising for a body lotion is displayed on the Android mobile phone with non-masked microphones. No suitable advertising appears on the other smartphones.
  • Test phase 2: The apps are open while we are talking about the predetermined topics. The editors then did not find any suitable advertising on the Android devices. An image showing a wedding dress appears in the Instagram app of the iOS device.
  • Test phase 3: When making phone calls with Facebook Messenger, the previously defined terms and the holiday destination Peru are mentioned several times a day. A few days later, an advertisement for a fashion company appears on the Android smartphone, and an advertisement for flights to Peru on the iOS smartphone. The test person with whom the discussions were held suddenly saw a lot of advertising on the subject of weddings on their private mobile phones on Facebook and Instagram.

Expert: No evidence of suspected wiretapping

Computer science professor Federrath from the University of Hamburg, however, considers it unlikely that technically possible eavesdropping and evaluating the conversations and phone calls could be the reason for the supposedly appropriate advertising. The expert believes that intelligent algorithms that evaluate the location, for example, are more likely.

Opinion from Facebook

At the request of Markt, Facebook writes:

"Facebook does not listen or read. The Facebook app only accesses the microphone if a user has expressly allowed the app to do so beforehand and at the same time actively uses a certain function that requires audio signals, such as recording a video or a Voice message. Basically, no app in the Facebook family uses the cell phone microphone to influence advertisements or articles in the news feed in any way. "

Be careful when handling data

The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information recommends being careful with the release of data with every app. Before the release, each user should carefully consider whether access to location data, camera or microphone is really necessary for the functionality of the app.

Amazon Echo: When does Alexa listen?

Does Alexa really only record speech after its name is said? Market author Uwe Leiterer has a suspicion. An interview on this with Amazon does not take place. more

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Market | 03/25/2019 | 8:15 pm