Are they listening? Deconstructing tech conspiracy theories

It's clear that larger numbers of people believe that audio surveillance is really happening

Can our phones really listen to us? Getty
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It’s one of the biggest technology conspiracy theories there is, fuelled by a suspicion of the motives of the world’s biggest companies and anecdotal evidence that seems, on the face of it, to be incontrovertible.

You hear new claims being made every day. “My phone is listening to conversations in the room,” a typical complaint might run. “Yesterday I was chatting to my friend over coffee about Sicily. That evening Facebook showed me an advert for flights to Sicily!” The accusation that the microphones in our computers, tablets and phones are being used by the likes of Facebook and Google to spy on us has always been strenuously denied by those companies, but the denials only bolster the convictions of those who make the claims. “Facebook would say that! They’re hardly likely to admit it, are they?”

Social media is a breeding ground for all kinds of conspiracy theories, but these ones became international news 18 months ago, when Kelli Burns, a professor at the University of South Florida, expressed concern in a blog post that Facebook may be using smartphone technology to “listen” to us for advertising purposes. She admitted that she wasn’t totally convinced this was the case, but the story went viral as people claimed that they, too, had their suspicions. The story snowballed.

As BBC News challenged a cybersecurity firm to produce an app for Android phones that could casually eavesdrop – which they managed fairly easily – Facebook issued a statement rejecting the accusations, and Google also “categorically” denied it.

Similar claims continue to garner attention, however. In August, technology consultant Damián Le Nouaille gave a detailed account in a blog post of why he believed Instagram was recording his conversations, based on an advertisement he was shown for a projector that, he claimed, could only have been shown as a consequence of eavesdropping. When challenged on the substance of his story, and asked whether it might be merely a random advertisement shown by coincidence, he replied: “I don’t exclude this option. I would love this to be true.”

But proving a coincidence is difficult, and it’s clear that ever larger numbers of people believe that audio surveillance is happening. This belief has been characterised as an example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion); the appearance of adverts relevant to our conversations is ascribed too much significance – way more significance than the hundreds of adverts we see that are unrelated to those conversations (and ignored).

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But stories such as Le Nouaille’s, while statistically small in number, look like a convincing weight of evidence when collected together in Reddit groups and Facebook threads. And when people are alert to a phenomenon, they begin to notice it far more.

Experts and industry insiders have tried to explain why the conspiracy theory can't be true. In a recent piece for Wired magazine, former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez outlined the extraordinary amount of disk storage space that would be necessary to record all the conversations of two billion monthly active users – storage that Facebook simply doesn't have. But, more significantly, he noted that these companies already have far more efficient ways of predicting what we might like to buy, because we tell them with our posts, searches and clicks. If we're already telling them who we are and what we like, why would they make haphazard attempts to analyse our colloquial, sarcasm-laden burblings in the hope of getting it right? In addition, the website AdAge pointed out that Facebook doesn't even offer advertisers the ability to target people in this way.

It’s easier to blame spying than believe someone who works in advertising, but this tendency has been described by Martínez as the “Narcissistic Fallacy”. In other words, the minutiae of our lives simply aren’t as interesting to other people (or, indeed technology companies) as we think.

The tech industry doesn’t help itself, however. By equipping us with extraordinary multimedia tools, it has built a breeding ground for paranoia, with billions of microphones and cameras in homes and offices right across the world. Hardware and software manufacturers go to great lengths to provide clear indications when access to microphones and cameras has been granted and when they are “live”, but these have been demonstrated to be bypassable by hackers, and many people have stopped believing what they are told. Just over a year ago, former FBI director James Comey advised people to place a piece of tape over the camera on their computers, while photographs show Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has done exactly that. This doesn’t inspire public confidence.

Meanwhile, newly popular home-based audio assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home have been specifically designed to listen to our words. Yes, they’re programmed to only “wake up” when hearing certain keywords, but they have been known to go rogue and listen to more than they should (as happened in October with a journalist’s pre-release unit of a Google Home Mini) and we are having to be constantly reassured that these devices aren’t as clever as we think they are. But we only have Amazon’s and Google’s word for it.

There’s also the sense that the limits of our privacy are being nudged. Two years ago, Facebook launched an “Identify TV and Music” app which could recognise certain songs or TV shows you might be listening to, and automatically tag them when you were writing a status update. This service inevitably used a microphone, and by the time the news had been filtered through the media and social media, it had become a full-on assault on our privacy.

This all happened again this week, when The New York Times revealed that a number of apps produced by a company called Alphonso listen for audio signals in TV shows and adverts we might be watching to help build up a picture of our entertainment preferences. Even if Alphonso's intentions are benign, the only conclusion that many will reach is that we are being listened to by our gadgets, every day, in a surreptitious fashion. The conspiracy, already sizeable, is starting to look unassailable.