I-TEAM investigation: Is Facebook spying on you?

Experiments reveal topics of conversations wind up in ads

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After hearing from Facebook users who reported that topics of conversations showed up minutes or hours later as advertisements in their social media feeds, the News4Jax I-TEAM set out to find out if the social media giant is monitoring users, using the microphone in their smartphones to target advertising.

To find out if conversations are monitored through the phone’s microphone, the I-TEAM conducted experiments with UNF students Connor Spielmaker, Tiziana Onstead, Jamie Swann and Mark Judson.

”Have you seen Kate Hudson’s new line, I know it doesn’t pertain to you guys but it’s so cute," Swann said to her fellow students.

The I-TEAM asked them to talk about random topics, such as exercising, for five minutes each.

"I don’t really care about gym clothes, but I used to do a lot of running,” said Spielmaker. 

The students then talked about cooking and traveling while keeping their Facebook update pages open and Instagram live feeds enabled.

“When do you guys usually go on cruises or vacations in general, and when do you look for that stuff?” Onstead asked.

The students then talked about their favorite alcoholic drinks, and something they considered random -- meal delivery services.

“Is Blue Apron or HelloFresh cheaper than going to the grocery store? Is that worth it?" Onstead asked the other students.

The students were then asked to examine their ads on Facebook and Instagram.

Swann said, “Oh my gosh, look at this -- I just received an ad for Blue Apron. See here, it says, 'Give Blue Apron a try for yourself, and get two meals free.' I’ve never seen Blue Apron on my page.”

Judson also noticed an new ad in his feed.

“An ad popped up and I don’t know, it’s interesting though, it’s travel and wine and we talked about both of those things," he said. "It wants me to go to Busch gardens for quirks and coasters, and I’ve never seen that before.” 

While three of the students all saw ads that corresponded to their conversations, the fourth, Connor Spielmaker, did not.

The I-TEAM asked the students to take screenshots of the ads, which revealed suggestions for road trip apps, ads for restaurants, along with five new advertisements related to exercising and local groups for working out.

“It’s so creepy, it's so creepy, I mean, for anyone to say it’s not creepy is just fooling themselves, it’s beyond what I ever thought I would see,” Swann said.

The I-TEAM wanted to know if this was all a coincidence, or something else, so it conducted a similar experiment with two other Facebook users.

This time, they pulled the topics out a hat. They randomly chose banking, Netflix and anything related to makeup.

”I really don’t see a difference in blushes or makeup, or the other makeup yet,” said Jessica Morgan, a mother of two. Morgan and Shannon Beckham spoke openly about these topics at length at a local park.

With their smartphones out, they didn’t see anything notable in their feeds while at the park. But all that changed the moment that they got home.

Morgan recorded her findings in a video taken on her phone.

"Look at this, I just opened up my Facebook page at home on my desktop computer, and just a little bit down the page I see an ad for Ulta," Morgan said. "We talked about makeup, and I find it interesting I have a makeup ad.”

The moms also sent the I-TEAM screenshots of the ads they saw, which included one for Hulu, along with ads on Instagram about free financial workshops and promotional information for Suntrust Bank.

”I think this might be a little bit of an overreach. I think leaving your microphone on, people are assuming it’s for uploading videos and music and you would hope they aren’t using them for something else,” Morgan said.

The I-TEAM shared the findings from both social experiments with Facebook, and a spokesperson issued this statement:

“Facebook and Instagram do not use microphone audio to inform advertising in any way. Businesses are however able to serve relevant ads to people based on other aspects, such as their age, their city, and their interests.”

The I-TEAM asked the Facebook spokesperson directly how they explain that five out of the six people we tested received ads about the topics that were discussed.

The spokesperson said it must be a coincidence and the topics discussed are typical among students and moms.

Social media consultant Dwann Rollinson said she's not buying it.

“Is Facebook listening to us, hmmm, how about this, they are watching us," Rollinson said. "It depends on what your definition of listening and watching is, but are they able to know what you’re doing, at any given time, yes. Are you being followed on every upload, is there a trend, yes, yes, yes.”

Rollinson said Facebook is able to extract advertising information from users by using computer code that allows them to track your online activities and trends. She added that any time the microphone is open, it's susceptible to being monitored. She said to play it safe, consumers need to understand their iPhone settings and turn their microphone off.

“It’s very simple, go to settings, privacy and you’ll see the app, they will ask to see your mic, so for me it’s the simple turn the green button off,” Rollinson said.

Again, Facebook said it does not use microphone audio to inform advertisers in any way, but anyone who's still concerned about the microphone can turn off access.

SLIDESHOW: Step-by-step instructions for Apple devices

Not all Android devices can disable Facebook's and Instagram's access to the microphone. The ability to control these settings was added in Android 6.0, also known as "Marshmallow," which newer Android phones and tablets use. Older devices using earlier versions of the Android operating system, like Android 5.0 ("Lollipop"), can only restrict permissions by using third-party apps.

SLIDESHOW: Step-by-step instructions for Android 6.0 devices

The I-TEAM reached out to several of the advertisers seen by the participants of the experiments to ask if they are aware that Facebook might be using audio to target ads. So far, the companies have not responded.

Facebook's Help Center does provide information for users about how they can adjust their ad preferences:

Facebook also provides information about how businesses can target users with advertising.

Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.