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Why it always feels like Facebook is spying on you

How much is paranoia and how much is real?
Image: christopher mineses/mashable

Bipul Lama considers Facebook is spying on him.  

And he’s got evidence. A test was conducted by Lama. For 2 days, all he talked about was Kit-Kats.  

“The next day, all I saw in my Instagram and Facebook were Kit-Kat advertisements,” Lama said.  

Following his experimentation, it was repeated by him about Lysol with fretting. The musician is now more convinced than ever that Facebook is listening through the mic of his phone.  

“It listens to keywords. If you say a word enough times, the algorithm catches these words and it sets off targeted advertisements,” Lama theorized.  

Lama is far from alone. The notion that Facebook is actively listening to individuals has turned into a phenomenon that is full-on. Facebook has, of course, denied it does that. That’s done little to soften the paranoia that was continuing .

Because it is simply a theory… right?

Facebook’s covert ops? 

The majority of people understand that the network is a giant machine that is data-collecting. Others find it hard to dismiss, although some users set the massive size and unknown goals from thoughts of Facebook. How much does Facebook understand about these? What is Facebook with that information for? And how much of these concerns are paranoia, and how much is real?  

“In many ways, naturally Facebook is spying on you,” said Brandie Nonnecke, research and development manager in the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. “It’s not doing this for malicious reasons. It’s hoping to tailor content to advertisers and you.”  

“In many ways, of course Facebook is spying on you.”

Lama’s experience seeing Facebook advertisements that appear to reflect his offline life is par for the course for many Facebook users.  

“One time I was texting a friend about how I actually wanted some clear-framed eyeglasses, then I got a Warby Parker ad,” said Olivia Reardon, a 25-year-old established in Boston. “Like how does Facebook understand what I’m texting about? It reads my thoughts and my texts!”  

There’s a motive Facebook gets a rap for this than, say, Google. With Google, it’s just advertisements. With Facebook, it’s personal. The advertisements and creepy suggested friends and prompts to observe holidays that may or may not use all add up to something more unsettling.  

With departing Instagram and Facebook–an option that could be untenable or intense for many–even users that are privacy-aware don’t feel like there is much they can do about it.  

“I have tried to check in privacy settings before but it’s not too clear,” Reardon said. “It’s not like you can assess an option that says ‘stop creeping my private conversations.'”  

A Standard feeling

Facebook advertisements and suggestions are all built to appeal. It’s a part of the reason why the concept of an all-knowing social media has such staying power even when facets of Facebook’s reach–such as the mike theory Lama favors–have been debunked.  

“In their thinking about such online privacy problems, individuals rely on heuristics–psychological shortcuts or small rules of thumb,” said Shyam Sundar, a professor in Penn State who studies the social and psychological effects of online communication.  

“Since we’re bombarded with a great deal of advice, we tend to not spend some time thinking about why our private advice ended up there. First we have a tendency to be pissed off in the service or get annoyed or embarrassed,” Sundar said. “Then we employ some sort of shortcut like, ‘When I go to this website, it’s going to end up embarrassing me.”  

“It’s not like you can assess an option that says ‘stop creeping my private conversations.'”

Fundamentally, we rationalize things. And occasionally that rationalization is jokingly saying “Facebook is spying on me” rather than investigating the details of the data we are giving the social media.  

People just notice things they are already thinking about. All of the advertisements on Facebook that don’t eerily align with your life go undetected, but a week the one that is pinpointed to your conversation jumps out.  

When people see a creepy ad, they have a tendency to think of what they did in real life that Facebook could know about. Sometimes, they forget in their behaviours that, even if not directly, might signal similar pursuits to advertisers.   

“If I’m talking with my husband trying to have a child and I see items on Facebook about kids, it’s likely I’m searching different things that also indicate I’m attempting to picture,” Nonnecke explained. “The way that we interact with others in the daily is quite similar to what we are doing online.”  

The catch

All of this would not be that big an issue if we knew what Facebook was doing. Nonetheless, it’s still cloudy. Even with all of the research anything might be happening behind closed doors in Menlo Park.

1 reason people are so sensitive to potential intrusion from Facebook is that they have the feeling that something is away. Since Facebook is forthcoming with details, users assume the worst. And they are not always wrong.  

“Businesses are analyzing [consumers] closely,” explained Ryan Calo, an associate professor of law at the University of Washington who studies law and emerging technologies. “There’s no transparency in that process, so they presume other correlations–that are in fact coincidence–are a part of that.”  

Until Facebook provides us the details on how exactly it’s using 2 billion people’s information, the paranoia is here to remain.  

“What is the saying?” Calo said. ” ‘Just because I’m paranoid does not mean no one’s out to get me.'”  

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