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Is Facebook Listening to Us? Yes and No
It’s something that’s probably happened to most of us, maybe more than a few times. You talk about a product or a service with a friend or family member, and suddenly you’re seeing Facebook or other digital ads in your social media feeds or search results.
This begs the question – is Facebook listening to us? Through our phones or other devices?
The truth is that Facebook, Google, and other companies are listening to you, but probably not in the ways we might most worry about (through your phone or other devices).
While such situations do present an opportunity to review your cybersecurity practices (more on this later), they present more of a marketing or a personal preference question than one about any sort of surveillance we need to be worrying about.
It’s About Anonymized Ad Precision, For Better or Worse
To put the matter more plainly, Facebook cares more about what information it can learn and leverage about your tastes, preference, and predilections, than it does your name or other personal or private information.
Facebook is not alone in “listening” to you online.
Consider a classic story from a few years back, about a young woman who began to receive paper marketing mailers at home from Target, advertising baby supplies. She was pregnant but hadn’t told anyone, including her parents, who she lived with, who wanted to know what was going on when they saw the mail. The mailers effectively announced her pregnancy to her unsuspecting parents.
So how did Target know she was pregnant?
The likely explanation is that the woman had bought her pregnancy test at Target, so some data event in their retail systems had triggered the mailing.
This happens all day, every day when we browse and interact online.
It Comes Down To Your Preferences and Tolerance
Now, there are also cybersecurity and data privacy elements to all this.
Clearly, in the example above, Target took a risk and acted with less nuance than was appropriate. But what of the tracking that Facebook, Google, and other companies (large and small) conduct every day, in the process of serving us ad and search results? Is it equally inappropriate as the Target example?
Long Answer: It depends on what matters to you regarding these topics. It’s also essential to practice some commonsense cybersecurity awareness when clicking on any ads served to you (or search results produced, or links sent), whether these are based on your behavioral data or not.
First, on the part of the tracking, consider what companies are actually trying to do at the end of the day – successfully bring you closer to buying those products, services, or information from its advertisers. So it’s imperative they deliver products and services that you actually might want.
It can become easy to forget this with an organization like Facebook because they’ve taken their data collection and usage too far in the past. This overreaching resulted in a significant dialing back of their policy and, perhaps not unrelated, changes in the industry (see Apple’s major changes to the privacy permissions on iOS). However, companies are nonetheless “listening” mostly to optimize sales and marketing calls to action.
Compare this to, say, a cable TV commercial.
Instead of having to sit through numerous repetitions of a commercial for, say, a pickup truck that you don’t want or need, the data Facebook or Google collect can be leveraged to deliver ads that you do care about, for instance, if you are in the market for a new coffee machine.
When to Be Careful
Going back to the cybersecurity issue, though, it’s when the ads get less relevant or arise as a result of tracking by companies not as tied to their results and public perception as a Facebook or Google that you might want to raise your guard a little bit.
All the standard cautions apply in such cases.
Don’t click on anything you’re not sure about. Run a search first or seek third-party verification if you still want to find out more, and trust your gut if something seems too good to be true or just makes you uncomfortable.
Finally, know that many companies allow you to change your privacy and tracking settings and to receive copies of what data is being collected for your review. There are also always private browsers, VPNs, and plugin applications available that can be used to block tracking.
Lastly, if you’re still worried, try to focus on what’s most in your control, namely, what you share online and how.
In addition to all the usual precautions we’d recommend, remember that there are legitimate bad actors out there using practices like social engineering to collect much more critical data about you.
Don’t allow cybercriminals to target you or your business while you’re distracted worrying about what Facebook and Google are tracking. These platforms aren’t performing nefarious acts as you might think.