If you’re wondering whether Facebook spies on you through your phone’s microphone, you’re not alone. What started out as an online conspiracy theory has gained so much traction, it’s warranted responses from major media outlets like The Guardian and Forbes. Let’s take a closer look at what’s really happening, as well as steps you can take to protect your privacy while on the world’s most popular social media platform.
Is Facebook spying on you?
You’ve likely experienced it: One minute you’re talking about some new product or service, and almost immediately it appears in your Facebook feed. Does this mean Facebook is spying on you?
Sorry if that wasn’t the answer you were expecting, but the titan of Menlo Park — and 99.99 percent of the internet — is spying on you. We just happen to make it easier for Facebook to do the dirty work. Does that mean they’re listening in to your phone’s microphone to better serve you McDonald’s ads? The answer is no, because it’s neither necessary nor feasible.
If you’d like to learn more about exactly how much data Facebook would have to process and track to make this a reality, you can geek out on this article by Wired, but consider yourself warned about the naughty language you may find there.
How does that ad get to you?
While those hyper-targeted ads can reach your Facebook feed in a myriad of ways, The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern explains one of the most popular means. In her article “Facebook Really Is Spying on You, Just Not Through Your Phone’s Mic,” Stern explains how an ad for Sudafed likely found its way into her feed:
“As I bought tissues and Afrin, I keyed in my phone number so I could get loyalty points. Information about the contents of my shopping bag began to spread. A third-party data collector added it to the purchase history it acquires from Walgreens…[Johnson & Johnson] paid the data broker for that information. With the use of Facebook’s tools, the information from my loyalty card was matched with my Facebook account. Then via Facebook, Johnson & Johnson decided to target adults ages 25 to 54 who bought Sudafed or a competing brand. In other words, me.”
If that sounds scary, it’s because it is. Thankfully, there are some steps we can take to combat this level of invasion.
Protect your privacy on and offline
Think when registering for loyalty cards
Be careful when signing up for loyalty cards. If you plan on providing a real phone number, make sure it’s not one that’s tied to any of your online accounts. You could also get a second number.
Run Facebook Disconnect or Ghostery
The Facebook Disconnect browser extension will automatically block the Facebook Pixel from loading on pages you visit — meaning the tech juggernaut will have to work a whole lot harder to track you. The Ghostery extension takes things to the next level by allowing you to choose which tracking cookies to allow or block as a page loads.
Use an adblocker
Protect your privacy both on and off Facebook with a quality adblocker. If you don’t know which service to select, you can review Mozilla’s list of Top 5 Adblockers. If you’re looking for something a little less Firefox-focused, you can head over to Digital Trends.
Turn off GPS tracking
Your phone’s GPS is responsible, at least in part, for many of the ads you see. Navigate to your phone’s settings and review/edit the apps you’ve granted location access. If it’s not necessary for an app to know your location, disable the location access.
Your phone’s Identifier for Advertisers, or IDFA, allows apps to swap information with Facebook and view any other history tied to your IDFA. This means if you download an app designed to help you stop smoking, you could begin seeing ads for nicotine gum. To prevent this from happening, reset your advertising identifier and disable the function.
On Apple devices, you’ll need to turn on Limit Ad Tracking in the Advertising section of the Privacy menu. For Android devices, you’ll need to opt out of Ads Personalization in the Ads menu.
Edit Facebook ad settings
You’ll also want to edit your ad settings within Facebook. To do this, go to Settings -> Account Settings -> Ads -> Ad Settings and turn off all the settings on this page. Feel free to delete any interests Facebook has collected about you as well, though you’ll have to delete them one by one.
Drop the mic
Seriously, you’re still worried about the microphone thing? OK, here’s how you fix it.
Android: Settings -> Apps -> Facebook -> Permissions -> turn the mic off
iPhone: Settings -> Privacy -> Microphone -> turn Facebook off
Great! Now with that mic problem handled, you can focus on all the ways Facebook is actually spying on you.