Facebook insists it doesn’t eavesdrop, but I keep seeing ads for things I’ve discussed

First published at Global News on September 8, 2017.

Whenever I download a new app, I tend to accept whatever demands it makes of me. This admission may make privacy advocates cringe, but such is the price of benefiting from whatever convenience these apps offer.

Especially now that fewer and fewer apps will function without having access to location data and other personal details from your phone.

Perhaps the worst offender is Facebook, whose apps require — depending on how you use them — access to everything from your photo galleries to your contact list.

Doubtless, it’s Big Brotherly, but most of us shrug because we value connectivity more than privacy. This trade-off is what makes Facebook so profitable.

A few people have remarked that if you don’t pay for a product, you are the product. With Facebook’s ad-driven revenue model, the company’s algorithm helps sponsors maximize their investment by targeting users based on relationship status, musical interests, method of commute, and other factors we don’t even think about.

Is talking about something out loud part of that algorithm? Facebook says it isn’t.

Last month, I came across a Facebook advertisement for a private jet company hours after my wife and I had a conversation about private air travel — not a regular occurrence, I assure you.

Within the last week, a conversation between my mother and I about pillows was followed a day later with pillow-related advertisements in my Facebook newsfeed.

When I shared my concerns about “Big Data” — the commercialization of our personal information — dozens of people shared their own experiences of eerily similar occurrences with me.

Speaking on background, a Facebook Canada spokesperson categorically denied that the Facebook app even hears verbal conversations, let alone uses them for ad targeting. The spokesperson said Facebook uses elements of our digital footprint such as browser history and profile information, but the microphone is only on when someone is using features that require it.

After asking the spokesperson if it was just a coincidence that I saw certain ads after speaking about those subjects, I was referred to a 2016 statement Facebook issued.

“We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information — not what you’re talking out loud about,” it reads.

British math professor David Hand said in an interview with BBC that such phenomena could be explained as coincidences, charging that we simply pay more attention to things that are already on our minds.

In other words, I may have already been getting private jet ads but only noticed one because of an earlier conversation. There is merit to this given how many of us skim our news feeds on autopilot.

We also have to account for the hundreds of ads we may see that have no connection to our personal conversations. Sometimes the improbable happens, and there isn’t always a reason, Hand argues.

Though even if Facebook isn’t tuning into our private moments, we should still be cautious.

As an iPhone user, Siri — the device’s virtual assistant — comes to attention when I say “Hey Siri.” (Also, when I discuss the phonetically similar Syria, which has made for some awkward background noise during my radio show.)

For Siri to respond, my iPhone must always have one ear open, so to speak.

Amazon and Google devices have similar features, though all companies insist their technology isn’t spying on anyone.

But technologically speaking, it’s possible. The same feature that sends a text for me when I’m too lazy to move my fingers, could result in my most private moments being saved or observed by a machine — or even a person.

We will soon have to decide — if the point hasn’t already arrived — whether these compromises to our own privacy are worth the supposed benefits. I’m not convinced we’ll make the right decision. Especially when the technology has advanced to such a point where these privacy-encroaching features are automatic.

I connected my phone to my new car through Bluetooth to take calls through the vehicle’s sound system. But now, I get a notification on my phone every time I get in my car telling me how long it will take me to home or work.

I’ve never programmed my office’s address into my phone — it just knows from my daily visits there.

This isn’t an indictment of any technology companies. After all, we’re all too willing to hand over this information to them. We just need to have a conversation about where this trend is headed.

And let’s leave our phones in the next room when we have it.