Facebook really is spying on you, just not through your phone’s mic

The accuracy of Facebook's ad targeting sometimes leads users to believe that Facebook is spying on them by tapping the microphones in their phones. Facebook has denied the practice - and is likely telling the truth because uploading and scanning the amount of audio data such a system would involve an unattainable amount of processing power to understand context. 
It sounds believable: Joanna Stern's mother told her to buy the decongestant Sudafed in the morning, and by afternoon she sees an ad for it on Facebook. Instead, Facebook gleans its insights from the data it collects by watching us move around the web and, in some cases, in the physical world. The Sudafed ad was generated like this: earlier in the day Stern bought tissues and the nasal spray Afrin at Walgreens, keying in her phone number in order to get loyalty points. A third-party data collector added the contents of her shopping cart to the purchase history it acquires from Walgreens, and then sold it to Sudafed manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, whose specified targeting coupled with Facebook's account data, led to an ad targeted at Stern.
There are ways to opt out of a fair amount of data gathering, but it requires discipline: don't use loyalty cards, or register them to a phone number or email address you don't use for other things; opt out at the data brokers' websites; turn off location tracking in your phone; and check on the ads shown by other apps on your phone. Finally, use ad blockers and opt out of targeted ads on Facebook itself.

Writer: Jessica Stern
Publication: Wall Street Journal

What is Privacy International calling for?

Personalisation, persuasion, decisions and manipulation

The data that is observed, derived or predicted from our behaviour is increasingly used to automatically rank, score, and evaluate people. These derived or inferred data are increasingly used to make consequential decisions through ever more advanced processing techniques. In the future people will be scored in all aspects of their lives, societies will be managed invisibly, and human behaviour will be under the control of the few and the powerful.

Profiling makes it possible for highly sensitive details to be inferred or predicted from seemingly uninteresting data, producing derived, inferred or predicted data about people. As a result, it is possible to gain insight into someone’s presumed interests, identities, attributes or qualities without their knowledge or participation.

Such detailed and comprehensive profiles may or may not be accurate or fair. However, increasingly such profiles are being used to make or inform consequential decisions, from finance to policing, to the news users are exposed to or the advertisement they see. These decisions can be taken with varying degrees of human intervention and automation.

In increasingly connected spaces, our presumed interests and identities also shape the world around us. Real-time personalisation gears information towards an individual’s presumed interests. Such automated decisions can even be based on someone’s predicted vulnerability to persuasion or their inferred purchasing power.

Automated decisions about individuals or the environment they are exposed to offer unprecedented capabilities to nudge, modify or manipulate behaviour. They also run risk of creating novel forms of discrimination or unfairness. Since these systems are often highly complex, proprietary and opaque, it can be difficult for people to know where they stand or how to seek redress.

We should know all our data and profiles

Individuals need to have full insight into their profiles. This includes full access to derived, inferred and predicted data about them.