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Keep quiet: Is Facebook listening?

Is Facebook listening to conversations? (Source: Is Facebook listening to conversations? (Source:
(Source: WOIO) (Source: WOIO)

We've known for a long time that Facebook tracks what we post about, things we like, and the products we buy. It sells that information and makes a lot of money doing it.

But with a new feature, is Facebook now listening to your conversation? Many people don't know the mic function is on their phone and turned on.

We thought we better ask: Is Facebook spying on you?

"Spying is a loaded term," Dr. Kathleen Stansberry of Cleveland State told Cleveland 19 reporter Dan DeRoos. She’s an expert in strategic communications and social media.

"Facebook certainly tracks our search data. Tracks when we're using Facebook, what we're posting about it tracks the topics that we're interested in and then it targets advertising," says Stansberry.

In 2015, Facebook made $17.9 billion in ads, and what's called data mining, which is selling information about your user habits, patterns and likes, and Dr. Stansberry says you shouldn't be shocked.

"If you're not paying for something then you're probably the product. You are paying with your privacy. You're paying with your information," added Dr. Stansberry.

But now Facebook has installed a microphone option, using the mic in your phone. They claim they use it to listen to ambient noise. For example, what song you're listening to, what movie you're watching, and then asking if you want to share that with your friends. But if they can listen to that, what else are they listening to?

"I don't believe Facebook is actually using this microphone to listen to conversations. Does that mean they can? They probably could," Stansberry speculates.

So we set up a pretty simple non-scientific experiment to see if they're telling the truth. We took four Cleveland 19 employees and had them talk about four random topics with the Facebook app open and the mic option turned on.

"And we'll just talk randomly about it. The idea is maybe the microphone is listening to us, maybe it isn't," advised DeRoos sitting at a conference room table.

We had them talk about shopping and pizza.

"It's just Belleria and Wedgewood, they're both in Youngstown and they're so good,” said web producer Tiffany Patterson-Carter.

Then the topics of movies and traveling.

"If I'm going to fly, it will usually be to a beach," said executive producer Mel Watson. "If I can't get what I want on United, then I'll go searching Spirit, Frontier, Southwest." In talking about her favorite trip Watson said out loud "Fiji is quite the experience -- we take United to Fiji."

It only took about five minutes to get results. Remember our Patterson-Carter, who talked about ordering pizza in Youngstown where she lives. Low and behold, a piping hot ad was delivered to her newsfeed.

"This Pizza Joe's ad came up and that's in Girard, which is in the Youngstown area," as she held her phone up to show us.

If Facebook is listening and tailoring ads, then they love Mel Watson. Remember her talking about traveling on United?

"I just talked about travel less than five minutes ago, I had mentioned United no less than three times, and since that time I have had a United plus card by Chase come up,” said Watson with a shocked look on her face.

That's not all. A couple minutes later an ad for a Fiji resort popped up and she read it for us.

"Lomani Island Resort, the perfect pairing of romance and relaxation awaits at Lamoni," read Watson.

After talking about shopping and shoes, our associate producer Julius Palange had a Reebok ad pop up, and a Netflix ad after talking about where he watches movies.  

It took two requests to Facebook to finally get answers. I asked specifically does Facebook have the ability to listen to conversations. Their response?

"This feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn't listening to or storing your conversations."

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