Kelli Burns may go down in history — or at least in Google search — as the professor who claimed, definitively, that Facebook “eavesdrops” on its mobile users.
Her comments, reported in a Tampa TV news segment two weeks ago, have sparked a global panic about corporate surveillance and personal privacy. The claim that Facebook is always logging the ambient audio from your iPhone or Android mic has been repeated everywhere from Pakistan to Armenia.
There’s only one problem: Burns never said that. In fact, she doesn’t believe that Facebook is “spying” on anyone’s calls.
“This story has really gotten out of hand,” sighed Burns, who has taken to her blog to try to set the record straight. “I really don’t think Facebook is eavesdropping on us. I don’t believe it and I don’t have any evidence of it.”
To Burns’s credit, she didn’t originate this particular rumor — it’s more fair to say she inflamed it. For years, everyone from Reddit crackpots to Atlantic writers have reported sensing something fishy about the timing of certain Facebook ads. Users report seeing ads for obscure things not long after mentioning them in conversation, which has led some to believe that Facebook surfaced those ads because it was listening in. The theory has since been expanded to other platforms and voice assistants, from Apple’s Siri and Google Now to Amazon’s Alexa.
There are a number of problems with this theory, chief among them the fact that the evidence is so weak. We’re talking a couple of message-board anecdotes here — it’s not exactly the stuff of rigorous study.
But when WFLA, a Tampa news station, ran a segment on Burns acting out the very same sort of anecdote, people took it as proof positive: Facebook must be Big Brother.
In the segment, Burns makes a few vague statements about Facebook tracking — she never specifically mentions audio — and conducts a jokey experiment in which she talks about safaris in front of her phone. Her Facebook page later displays a popular story that one of her friends posted about going on safari. Burns said she didn’t realize the clip would be aired, and she certainly didn’t know it would be used to suggest that she had endorsed a long-running Facebook conspiracy theory.
“I actually don’t think that ‘experiment’ provided any confirmation at all,” Burns said. “It’s just one anecdote, and not a very shocking or concrete anecdote at that. . . . I feel like people are looking at me and saying, ‘No academic would go about doing research like that.’ ”
Meanwhile, Facebook has categorically denied using microphone access for anything but specific audio-enabled features, such as song recognition or voice commands. WFLA has not, however, corrected the online version of its segment and did not respond to a Washington Post request for comment.
None of this means you shouldn’t freak out, mind you. You should definitely worry about your online privacy. Some of the “suspect” juxtapositions people have flagged, for instance, can surely be attributed to Facebook’s pervasive non-audio tracking. The company has stated publicly that it crafts complex, many-factored profiles based on everything from the pages you like to the posts you read. Since 2014, Facebook has also kept track of your browsing data to inform the ads in your feed.
As of May 27, moreover, you don’t even have to be a Facebook user for the company to track your behavior online. An expansion to its ad platform means Facebook now gathers data on all Internet users to surface ads on third-party sites.
“Facebook is tracking you,” Burns said. “Not what you say, but things like your contacts and your location. There’s a lot of personal information you give up any time you’re on your phone . . . often without realizing it.”
Unfortunately, as Burns has learned, most users are more concerned about hypothetical privacy infringements than the ones that sit, quite literally, in their pockets.
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