Private investigations – internet security – Careless Whispers: Facebook has ears

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Last week, in a moment of madness, we spent 5 minutes thinking about buying a new car. We quickly realised that a) our current car was fine, and b) the insurance on an Aston Martin Vanquish was a trifle expensive.

This flight of fancy was shared, albeit momentarily, with a friend online.

The next day, having come to our senses, we logged into Facebook and were surprised to see advertisements for the car of our dreams in our news feed.

A coincidence? Perhaps.

We’ve known for a while that Facebook is a rich source of data mining. We’ve written before about the dangers of taking part in the myriad of ridiculous quizzes for which social media appears to have been invented. Each time you do so, your quest to find out which celebrity would play you in a film of your life, or which of your friends loves you the most, you are in fact divulging vital personal information. This is then used to target you with adverts, promotions, sales pitches…need we go on?

But two articles we read last week would seem to suggest  that the social media giant is using new, and frankly more worrying, ways to get hold of our personal information.

The first story was that of Professor Kelli Burns, an expert in social media at the University of South Florida. In an experiment, she had a conversation with a news reporter, and when she checked her Facebook feed a short while later, she was surprised to find posts and adverts specifically mentioning things she had talked to the reporter about. The conclusion drawn by many, was that Facebook might be “listening in” to the conversations people have on their smartphones, and using the microphone data to target them with relevant posts and advertisements. Facebook has not commented on the story, but as said in the past it does not allow microphone data to be used in this way.

So that’s OK then. But then we read another article, this time from Facebook itself. The company is using Artificial Intelligence software, to help it understand what people are talking about in text-based posts. At this stage, “Deep Text” is capable of understanding 20 different languages, and can interpret several thousand posts a second. The idea behind it, according to Facebook, is that it will enable them to give users a more personalised service, targeting them with relevant and useful adverts and filtering out unwanted posts or spam.

As private investigators, we are always wary of anything which seems to encroach on people’s privacy. It seems to us that the collecting of data such as this is open to misuse. More importantly, it is yet another example of large and powerful corporations attempting to control certain aspects of our lives. Eavesdropping on conversations about cars is one thing, but what if more intimate details of our lives were being shared to all and sundry?

We’ll be monitoring this and watching with interest. But not talking about it on our smartphone. Now, we wonder how much the insurance would be on a DB6…