A recently unveiled feature on Facebook’s mobile apps is seriously creeping some people out. The feature will listen to the user’s ambient sounds, it says, to automatically allow the user to share what music or TV show they are currently listening to or watching as part of a status update.
Immediately, people began to be concerned about what this means for their privacy. Does Facebook store the sounds? Do they share it automatically? Is it on all the time? This one seems to have really stoked the privacy fears that already existed due to the amount of information shared with the enormous social network and the extent to which the NSA has used Facebook for spying.
Quite the uproar has ensued, which has so far culminated in an ever-growing petition asking Facebook to remove the feature. At the time of this posting, the petition was approaching 600,000 e-signatures with a goal of 750,000.
This might ring familiar to those who were a bit creeped out by the Xbox One when it came out, due to its always-listening, always-watching Kinect attachment. That feature looks for the owners of the machine, recognizing their faces, and it will power up or down depending on whether it sees them in the room. It also responds to voice commands, once again even recognizing the voices of its primary users.
The Xbox One controversy ended with Microsoft caving by selling the console without the Kinect sensor, which also helped the gaming system be more price competitive with the less-intrusive PS4, which certainly won the public relations battle in the lead-up to their respective releases.
The originators of the petition against this Facebook feature had this to say, emphases in original:
Facebook just announced a new feature to its app, which will let it listen to our conversations and surroundings through our own phones’ microphone. Talk about a Big Brother move.
Facebook says the feature will be used for harmless things, like identifying the song or TV show playing in the background, but by using the phone’s microphone every time you write a status update, it has the ability to listen to everything.
So far, Facebook has not given any ground, highlighting several aspects of this feature that they feel are not being represented accurately. In an update to their original announcement, Facebook added a section addressing a series of “myths” about it.
First and foremost, they emphasize that the feature is optional. Not only is it optional, it is an opt-in feature. This means the mobile apps will not do this until the user has been informed of what the service does and consents to using it. Nobody has to use it.
This is important as various behavioral research indicates that people are unlikely to opt out of services, even when they don’t want them, while the inverse is usually true for opt-in services; that is, people do not opt into things that they are pretty sure they want, either out of laziness, forgetfulness, or just reluctance to change the status quo.
Beyond that, Facebook also explains the specifics of how the service works and how user data is handled. The microphone is only activated during the time the user is writing a status update and in that time it searches for music or television shows it can recognize by sound. It manages this by the same kind of “fingerprinting” technology that services like Shazam do. If it finds a match, the user is given the option of including that information in the post. They explain:
The app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try and match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can’t be reversed into the original audio because they don’t contain enough information.
Remember that posting the status update with the matched song or TV show will make that match public or partially public information. When you don’t post it, Facebook says they will simply log that a match was made with no user data attached.
Whether or not the anonymization they perform that prevents matches being tied to users is an adequate privacy provision is up for debate, since we do not know how they do it or whether Facebook or government surveillance agencies could circumvent that data. Luckily, no recordings are ever stored for any amount of time – it would not be legal for Facebook to lie about this.
Snopes, the Internet’s preeminent myth debunking website, declares the alarmism regarding this feature as a mixture of truth and myth, citing the ways that the user exerts a great deal of control over the feature and the fact that there is not a great deal of information that could potentially fall into the wrong hands.