Post #94: Manipulating Reality: Facebook Is Listening to You

One thing our generation has become all too used to is how reality can be manipulated to create the appearance of something else entirely. Invading another country is defensive, rigged elections are passed off as democracy in action, more guns (or more nuclear weapons) ensure the peace, trade and foreign investment increase jobs at home.  Orwellian logic has become commonplace.

What I am reporting on here is another kind of manipulation: How Facebook and other social media use the information we for the most part unknowingly provide it—including even words we speak in the privacy of our own homes—to advertise products that we didn’t request and almost certainly don’t want, and pass data on to the government.

I am hardly the first to discover this extraordinary capability.  A number of other people have expressed their astonishment and anger when they became aware that key words they used in Facebook and Twitter communication, such as messaging, location, and status, as well as in private conversations anywhere in their homes, were being picked up and almost instantly converted into ads.  You mention a particular sport and a ticketing agency’s ad appears.  You say you would love to drive a Lexus and up pops a Lexus ad.  You talk about a vacation, and a Facebook ad refers you to a Hawaiian beach or a small Paris hotel that—lo and behold—you had actually mentioned just yesterday!

Is this paranoia?  Is Facebook (or Instagram, Google, or Yahoo) really capable of listening in on our conversations?  Facebook readily admits that its business model relies on the data we enter or transmit online, that once we join the data essentially becomes Facebook’s property, and that (as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has argued) most people don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway. Of course Facebook et al. defend their model by telling you they are merely responding to your wants, and that if you wish they can reduce (but not eliminate) advertising if you’ll simply check a list provided in their program settings.  But as to actually listening in, Facebook contends that only you control the microphone, and (according to the head of Facebook security) you must give permission to Facebook to activate it.  Does anyone recall being asked for permission  (

You apparently can disable the microphone function in Windows or the Facebook mobile app on your smart phone or tablet (  But does “off” actually mean completely off?  Apparently not, for here are my wife Jodi’s and my own experiences after we turned off the microphone on her computer.  Note that the ads appeared within seconds of our speaking.

  • Jodi made a remark about Robin Wright Penn, the actress. Ads for Sean Penn movies instantly appeared.
  • We discussed T-shirts for grandchildren. Ads for just such T-shirts appeared.
  • Jodi mentioned our unfinished Scrabble game. Immediately, an ad for the game Yahtzee came up.
  • Jodi was discussing hotels in Portland with her sister on the telephone, and encouraging her to stay in a private home. An ad for a site that facilitates home swaps for vacationers instantly appeared.
  • Jodi was describing her appearance relevant to her age, such as laugh lines and grey hair, and an ad for Maybelline “Age Rewind” popped up.

(For other people’s similar experiences, see

So now you say, OK, but isn’t this snooping illegal, an invasion of privacy?  There have been fairly large-scale protests of Facebook’s smartphone snooping (–listening–feature-is-a-problem-of-trust.html), but no policy change by Facebook so far as I’m aware.  At a legal level, a careful Belgian study points out—and by the way, the Europeans are far more upset with and focused on Facebook’s shenanigans than are Americans—“opting out” of advertising is not the same as informed and direct consent (  Moreover, Facebook does not ask for our consent to its acquiring data from other sources, for collecting location data provided in smart phones, for using photos or other data (such as “like”) entered by the user.

I think a fair reading of the Belgian report and Facebook’s most recent (2015) clarifications of policy is that Facebook may collect any and all information stemming from your use of Facebook and from the device you use to access Facebook.  “Any information” means absolutely any data you enter, whether about yourself or third parties, and whether provided in writing, by voice, or in pictures. Even if you elect to terminate your Facebook account, it retains all the information you’ve provided.

There is an additional and even more pernicious issue: the gathering and use of social media data by US government agencies, notably the National Security Agency (NSA).  This practice, which Edward Snowden brought to light, includes the participation of Facebook, Apple, and several other technology companies in the NSA’s PRISM program to collect data directly from the companies ( rather than simply via the Internet.  The same practice is now being contested by the European Union.  In 2000, the EU accepted the US proposal to establish a “Safe Harbor” program for transferring personal data collected in Europe by Facebook, Google, and Amazon to the US.  That agreement was reevaluated by the European Court of Justice Advocate-General, who maintained that it violates Europeans’ basic rights.  The A-G finds that the data can be “accessed by the NSA [National Security Agency] and by other United States security agencies in the course of a mass and indiscriminate surveillance” (

The ECJ has just upheld that opinion (, declaring Safe Harbor invalid. The court’s ruling is that Safe Harbor “must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life.” It’s a big blow, though not necessarily a fatal one, to Facebook and others engaged in data transferring in Europe.  The Europeans have been pressing these companies, especially Google and Amazon, on other issues as well, such as with anti-trust legislation ( Ideally, the ECJ ruling and other European actions will embolden Americans to stage their own fight for greater privacy and more transparency in the way the technology giants conduct their business.

Does social media’s invasion of privacy bother you, or do you consider it the price of socializing?  How have you handled your privacy with your computer, phone, or tablet?  Have you had the kinds of listening-in experiences I mentioned?  I’m sure readers of this blog would like to know.


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  1. Mel, Great article. You may already know that Amazon is one of the CIAs largest contractors with over $500 million per year.

    ROBERT WISE, Associate Principal
    503.278.3454 |

  2. Facebook may be more “advanced” in its data mining of our communications for its own commercial and other purposes, but all of the digital media have the potential for using our data for other purposes. I’ve encrypted a few messages, but I will use it more regularly.

  3. Thank you for sharing this valuable information Mel. To answer your question, social media’s invasion of privacy bothers me and has for a long time. Yet I still choose to use social media for the benefits it provides. I have adapted an attitude of cautious authenticity. I am confident in who I am and what I am doing. I have assumed for many years that all of our activities are known, that there are essentially no secrets. Yet I still become infuriated when more information points to this Orwellian invasion of privacy. I am open to ideas on how I could productively contribute my voice to this conversation and help facilitate change.

  4. Wouldn’t you know it! After reading this disconcerting revelation I picked up the USA Today and saw the article “3 Gadgets That Are Always Listening…And How to Stop Them”. Good news. Siri (who is always listening and waiting to respond) – can be turned off with iOS 9. There are also instructions on how to turn off Google Now and Cortana. So Mel, you have been heard, and the response came immediately!

  5. Hi Mel,

    Good post on how our lives are increasingly manipulated by Facebook, et al. If you feel naive to have been so trusting of those who bring us technology, join the crowd. Living in Chicago twenty + years back, my work put me in contact with some pioneers in the industry, people like Marc Vandreeson, one of the creators of Netscape, the first popular, widely used web browser. He once cynically commented to a group of us that the era of personal privacy was over. I think most of the listeners nodded in agreement, while I wondered what the hell he was talking about. Then I began to learn about the back door Microsoft was putting in all of its products, giving it and government access to virtually every pc. I learned that Citrix, a software for networking various kinds of machines was doing the same, and so was Cisco, which was running and continues to run most of the Internet traffic on its hardware. We were working then with other firms’ programmable broadband routers, the first ones to provide total control of bandwidth and content, and allowed for redirect of such content at will. Government was our biggest customer. I could tell you lots of stories…in those early days in the 1990s, when the Internet was first becoming accessible to people outside of universities and the DOD, the tech industry, in collusion with the federal government, was launching a total invasion of privacy-and no one I spoke with saw a thing wrong with it. Of course I knew a little, but felt as an outsider that there was nothing I could do. Now, I’m appalled at the extent of the theft that you describe. If in robbing us of privacy America’s tech industry and government ethics are questionable, their hypocrisy can be daunting. When this insidious partnership can be so unethical as to steal US citizens’ personal data, it becomes laughable to challenge China and others for doing the same thing.

    One evening in the Fall of 1998, while enjoying a Japanese anime cartoon with the staff during a break in activity at the San Diego Supercomputer Center–one of three that ran the Internet at that time–it hit me as terribly ironic that these bright people were having so much fun gaining probably illegal control over our lives. More remarkably, how passively we have all let this happen–until Eric Snowden found the guts to expose it all.


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