rolled out a new mobile feature
that uses your device’s microphone to “hear” a song you’re listening to or a TV show you’re watching so you can append that item to a status post. Predictably, a lot of people believe that this is a feature designed for snooping and are not happy that it exists.
They’re so unhappy, in fact, that they’ve created an online petition
to get Facebook to remove the feature from the Facebook app. To date, there are over 580,000 signatures.
“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,” reads the petition.
Although there are legitimate concerns about a feature like this, it seems there’s a bit of tinfoil hat-wearing going on here, and Facebook edited its original post about the new feature to address some misconceptions. Just technically speaking, the feature is opt-in; you can turn it off with a quick tap; it only “listens” for 15 seconds; and it doesn’t store anything on your device.
Further, there’s nothing NSA
-like about this in the least. Tech companies like Facebook are furious at the NSA; they’re not happily helping the government spy on the world. (And it’s not necessarily because they’re benevolent, it’s because the government is messing with their respective brands and interfering with their work.)
Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing eyebrow-raising about this feature. Surely Facebook will use this data for advertising, even though in the post and follow-up by Facebook Product Manager Aryeh Selekman makes no mention of it. (How else do you think Facebook will get around all those copyright problems?) Of course, that’s what Facebook does--it mines data from our posts for advertising. That how it provides a free service to a billion people. But we all knew that already, right?
Facebook also says that it “can’t” identify background conversations or other noises, and that it only creates an “audio fingerprint” that it sends to Facebook servers to match the song or show. I’m not sure what an “audio fingerprint” is, but this is one aspect of the feature that requires us to take Facebook at its word that it can’t and won’t capture things we might say, which is where a lot of people balk.
Facebook doesn’t have a reason to collect conversation snippets--there’s likely nothing that can be gleaned from those snippets that Facebook can monetize. There’s a fear, though, that if Facebook is dishonest about what the feature can actually do and the NSA does that thing where it demands customer data with a thin shadow court subpoena, it could grab whatever Facebook’s collected.
However, it’s quite farfetched to think that Facebook would go to the trouble and expense of actively collecting and storing all that data and also keeping track of audio generated by specific users and sorting it by time, place, and possible associates.
In sum, you probably don’t need to worry about this feature, and if you don’t like it, don’t use it when it becomes available on iOS
in the coming weeks. If you’re as upset about it as more than 580,000 other users are, though, you can sign the online petition here