In his lengthy two-day testimony before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg touched on many issues of personal privacy and his platform’s responsibility. Among the many topics he addressed was a long-running conspiracy theory about Facebook’s lack of boundaries. “Does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?” Senator Gary Peters asked.
“Senator, let me be clear on this,” Zuckerberg said. “You’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use them for ads.” The rumors have been floating around for years, fueled by anecdotes from Facebook’s highly accurate ad-targeting system and the company’s own boasts about artificial intelligence.
It came up again today when Representative Larry Bucshon slipped on his tinfoil hat and recalled:
My son, who lives in Chicago, him and his colleagues were talking about a certain kind of suit, because they’re business guys. The next day he had a bunch of ads for different suits on it when he went on to the internet. It’s pretty obvious to me that someone is listening to the audio on our phones.
Zuckerberg denied that Facebook does this, and there are many reasons to believe him. Firstly, secretly recording users would be an enormous and highly illegal invasion of privacy, even for Facebook. The consequences of being found out would be catastrophic. Secondly, the ability for Facebook to access your phone’s mic is guarded by the phone’s operating system itself — iOS and Android act as a prophylactic layer between you and Facebook. Effectively, in order to constantly record you, Facebook would need to be in on it with mobile OS manufacturers, who would be jeopardizing pretty much their entire business by entering into such an agreement. Third, it would be impossible to conduct this activity without some sort of digital footprint. From technical and business standpoints, the conspiracy theory doesn’t hold water.
On the one hand, Bucshon’s line of questioning, like many lines of questioning over the last couple of days, has revealed a legislature that is often not up to speed on how modern technology functions. Representatives in the federal government, moving forward, need to focus on technical literacy so that they can effectively regulate. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, spent a lot of time trying to convince legislators that Facebook doesn’t sell data — a fact that is technically true but is also, in the grand scheme of Facebook’s data-harvesting operation, splitting hairs.
“My understanding is that a lot of these cases that you’re talking about are a coincidence,” Zuckerberg explained to Representative Bucshon regarding the phone conspiracy. “Someone might be talking about something, but then they also go to a website or interact with it on Facebook, because they were talking about it. Maybe they’ll see the ad [because of that subsequent action].” This is the sensible explanation — you talk about a product, you search Facebook or the broader web for that product, Facebook is able to track that through its many data-collection systems.
Maybe you open up your Facebook app while standing in a Men’s Wearhouse and had GPS turned on. Facebook can then target you by knowing that you visited a suit store recently. Maybe you visited a website that sells suits, and Facebook’s tracking code matched that browsing to your profile. There are dozens of supposedly benign signals Facebook uses to figure out your activity and interests, as the podcast Reply All explained in an investigation of the phone conspiracy.
Is that explanation any more acceptable though? It’s important to know how Facebook works on a technical level — the details are obviously important. In testimony, Mark Zuckerberg has clung to technicalities and legalese to skirt around important issues. But when the social network is operating in such a way that this conspiracy theory comes to exist, it’s worth questioning how much the details really even matter. When the practice makes people feel like their privacy has been invaded, it’s probably a good idea for that practice to stop.
The mic conspiracy is probably the best example of the bind that Mark Zuckerberg and his company find themselves in. Being pedantic, being technical will not make the business practices of Facebook any more palatable to angry and fearful users. “We don’t listen to you secretly, we just log whenever you visit a website with a Facebook tracker on it” is not an argument the company can convincingly make to quell outrage.
And because of Facebook’s monopolistic tendencies, there really isn’t anywhere else dissatisfied users can go for their social-networking needs. Yesterday, when Senator Lindsey Graham, who has famously clung to his flip phone for years, asked Zuckerberg to name a single competitor, Zuckerberg stammered his way around the question without answering it.
What we are left with is a powder keg. Facebook’s shady, inadequately disclosed business practices being used on a captive audience — and now legislators who don’t understand the technical details and only understand the creepy end results are being tasked with legislating them. There is no way for Facebook to explain away its problems. The only remedy is true and meaningful change.