Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the former employee of Cambridge Analytica, told members of the British Parliament yesterday that Facebook has the ability to listen in on conversations on people using their app. Video of his comments is included below.
While he says Facebook and its companies like Instagram likely cannot decipher specific conversations, Wylie says they do have the ability to gauge speech patterns to tell if a user is in a work environment, or listening to a TV at home. They then use that information to tailor ads to the user.
The comments come as Parliament is investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the abuse of personal data.
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christoper Wylie, appearing before a committee of British MPs on Tuesday, said that Facebook has the ability to spy on users in their homes and offices.
The British parliament is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Brexit election. MP Damian Collins, who chaired the committee, asked Wylie whether Facebook has the ability to listen to what people are talking about in order to better target them with ads.
“There’s been various speculation about the fact that Facebook can, through the Facebook app on your smartphone, listen in to what people are talking about and discussing and using that to prioritize the advertising as well,” Collins said. “Other people would say, no, they don’t think it’s possible. It’s just that the Facebook system is just so good at predicting what you’re interested in that it can guess.” He asked for Wylie’s thoughts on the possibility.
“On a comment about using audio and processing audio, you can use it for, my understanding generally of how companies use it… not just Facebook, but generally other apps that pull audio, is for environmental context,” Wylie said. “So if, for example, you have a television playing versus if you’re in a busy place with a lot of people talking versus a work environment.” He clarified, “It’s not to say they’re listening to what you’re saying. It’s not natural language processing. That would be hard to scale. But to understand the environmental context of where you are to improve the contextual value of the ad itself” is possible.
Wylie continued: “There’s audio that could be useful just in terms of are you in an office environment, are you outside, are you watching TV?”
The idea of Facebook listening in on conversations is no longer conspiracy theory for many. After joking about the possibility, Dallas television meteorologist Jennifer Myers tested her app, with disturbing results. Facebook began showing her ads related to her statements, and her searches. She posted her findings, ironically, on Facebook.
I was joking around with Evan about how handsome our singer on the show was today… he told me to calm down because I…
Myers later said other employees began testing the app as well, and getting the same results: ads based on words they said, not searches entered into the phone.
Facebook has long denied allegations that its app listens in on users in order to customize ads.
“I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true,” Rob Goldman, vice president of ads products at Facebook, tweeted on October 2017. “That includes Facebook-owned Instagram,” he added.
Here is video of Facebook whistleblower Christopher Wylie explaining the process.