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Facebook downplays "ambient audio" tech that can eavesdrop on you



Amid persistent rumors that Facebook is spying on you through your phone's microphone-rumors that the company has denied at least since 2016-reports emerged this week that the company has applied for a patent that "ambient audio" to

Essentially, your phone or other device would detect via Bluetooth or other signals that it's near your turned-on TV and would record short snippets of sound. TV Shows and Ads Could Include High-Pitched Signals That Are Precisely What You Want to Watch, and that Data Could Be Backed to a Central Server to "update user profiles of individuals" in your household

A diagram from a 2016 Facebook patent application for analyzing "ambient audio" [Photo: courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office]

This is not the only technology for capturing and identifying audio signals in a user's environment. In another patent application filed in 2015, it describes how to capture data about what a user is watching by using "acoustic fingerprinting" to analyze ambient audio, or even by analyzing electrical signals. Neither patents mention listening in on 'voices or conversations.

When reached by Fast Company Facebook said it never wants to "put" the patent-pending technology to use. According to an emailed statement from Allen Lo, VP, deputy general counsel and head of intellectual property at Facebook:

It is common practice to prevent patents to prevent aggression from other companies. Because of this, patents tend to focus on future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be commercialized by other companies. The technology in this patent has not been included in any of our products, and never will be. As we've said before, we often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patent applications should not be read as an indication of future product plans. Senate testimony whether Facebook uses "personal information about its users," Zuckerberg answered, "No."

Of course, the company stores audio and video deliberately uploaded and shared by its users, and its terms to give it wide latitude to analyze and process that data.

"Facebook has never used your phone's microphone to see what you see in News Feed, and we have no plans to." do so in the future, "said Facebook's vice president of ads Rob Goldman in a statement shared with Fast Company .

Meanwhile, rumors suggest that Facebook will soon launch a smart product Google Home, which would likely revive theories of spying, even unintentionally. Amazon devices have always been used to interpreting conversations as they are being used to record and transmit audio, and the devices generally work by constantly listening to cues in people's conversations, even if they do not retain that incidental audio or send it to the cloud.

It's already happening

Capturing audio to figure out what you're watching might sound outlandish, but it's actually being done. A company called Alphonso does just that, using modules in apps like […]

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wrote that they are using another TV -observing app module by data firm Silverpush and did not properly notify users, they could violate the law. At the time, Silverpush said it would be in use in the United States, according to the FTC, but that it would kill the software anyway due to a "business decision."

A year later, however, researchers found over 200 Android apps silently using Silverpush's inaudible sound "beacon" technology to spy on what TV commercials users were watching. McDonald's and Krispy Kreme, which has been published several times over the past few years, has been published in Google Play market.

Many smart TVs already do phone home with information about what you're watching, provided you give consent in the often-dense menus you see when you first get the device home and plug it in. The TVs generally do not need to listen to them 're watching, since they already have that data.

For instance, 4C, an analytics company and early Facebook and Twitter marketing partner, uses various techniques to help determine users' offline activity and pair digital live TV moments and commercials. Cambridge Analytica was touting similar techniques.

Even if marketers are not literally listening in, hackers and stalkers have been taken to webcams and microphones to spy on innocent people. (Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly exposing the camera and mic on his laptop.) Last year, a leak of CIA cyberweapons revealed a capturing audio recorded by Samsung's Smart TVs.


Related: Hackers Could Use A Pop Song To "Watch" You Through Your Smart Speaker


To prevent clandestine audio monitoring by apps, users can use their smartphone's privacy settings to disable their access to the microphone.

The bottom line is that they have found their way to the bottom of the road discussing in the physical world about what you're watching, listening to, and even discussing in the physical world. Even if Facebook is not listening, that does not mean technically it can not be that in the future.


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