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You might have heard rumors or news reports that the Facebook app can spy on you using your smartphone’s camera or microphone. But is that really true? And how else could the site know so much about you?
Can the Facebook App Spy on Users?
In November 2019, iPhone and Facebook user Joshua Maddux tweeted a video showing that when he browsed through the news feed in his Facebook app, his iPhone camera would be opened at strange times. Other users investigated and found similar issues.
When an iOS user opens the Facebook app on their device and scrolls through the news feed, the camera of their device may open in the background. There’s no reason that this should happen. And it’s very uncomfortable to think the app is watching users without their knowledge as they browse.
The existence of the bug was confirmed by Facebook to The Guardian. But a company spokesperson insisted that no photos or videos had been uploaded due to the bug. It’s likely that this was truly a security mistake, and not an actual attempt to spy on users.
Facebook submitted a fix for the app issue to the Apple App Store very quickly. This bug should now be removed from iOS and should no longer be a problem.
Does Facebook Use Smartphone Mics or Cameras to Spy on You?
This story made news headlines because many people are suspicious about how Facebook collects information about them. It’s a commonly held belief that Facebook surreptitiously turns on the camera or microphone of smartphones to spy on users.
Despite the security bug mentioned above, there’s no evidence that Facebook actually does this. Facebook has emphatically denied that it spies on users in the past.
However, you can see why people might believe this. It’s a very common experience to be discussing a product with a friend, and then for that product to be “magically” advertised to you on Facebook within a few days. Or when you’re planning a trip, for Facebook to recommend you a product like a new suitcase.
This makes it appear as if Facebook must be spying on you without your knowledge.
Facebook Doesn’t Need to Spy on You to Be Creepy and Invasive
The truth is, Facebook doesn’t need to spy on you through your smartphone’s microphone or camera in order to target ads at you with uncanny accuracy. People commonly assume that Facebook must be spying on them because it is so accurate at predicting their interests.
How Facebook Collects Information on You
Facebook is able to gobble up a tremendous amount of information about you. From this, it can predict your buying behavior extremely accurately.
The first piece of information Facebook uses to target ads is simply your location. By knowing where you live and spend most of your time, Facebook can predict a lot about your interests, personality, and purchasing habits. And when the app detects you are in a new location, then it knows you are traveling. So that’s a sign to advertise vacation items or travel accessories.
Another big source of information is a tool called a Facebook Pixel. This is a small snippet of code which webmasters for sites outside of Facebook can use to add Facebook tracking to their sites. It’s similar to a browser cookie, but for Facebook exclusively. This is why when you look at item like a pair of shoes on Amazon and then log into Facebook, you’ll often see an advert for the specific shoes you were just looking at.
Facebook Pixels are extremely common on sites across the internet. They allow Facebook to build up a profile of your behavior outside of the site and app. This makes it easier to target ads at you.
Other sources of data are your friends and family. Facebook knows that if a close friend of yours is interested in a product, the odds are high that you’d be interested in it too. Is also uses information like your stated interests and pages you have liked to build up a profile of you. All this information can predict your habits and behaviors very well.
How to Stop Facebook From Tracking You Online
Even if it’s not actively spying on you, it’s still creepy how much data that Facebook collects about you. Fortunately, there are ways you can lessen the amount of data which Facebook collects about you. Here are some ways to prevent Facebook from tracking you online:
- Delete your Facebook account. This is a drastic step, but it’s the best way to stop Facebook harvesting data about you. If you go this route, be sure to delete your account and not merely to deactivate it. Even if your account is deactivated, Facebook will continue to collect data about you.
- Use browser extensions which block Facebook tracking. There are extensions for both Chrome and Firefox to limit how much information Facebook can hoover up about you. These work by blocking Facebook Pixels and other trackers. Try an extension like Disconnect or Facebook Container.
- Use general privacy browser extensions. While you’re adding extensions, now is a good time to consider other privacy tools as well. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a respected digital rights group, has a tool called Privacy Badger. This blocks online trackers without you needing to do anything. You might also consider using a general blocking tool like uBlock Origin.
- Use a Facebook Pixel-blocking tool. If it’s Facebook Pixels in particular which both you, you should look into a company called Ghostery. The company produces reports on tracking tools, including those used by Facebook. And they have a browser extension to block Pixels and many other trackers too.
Further Steps to Limit Facebook Tracking
The above steps all limit the way Facebook can access your data from the outside. But there are also ways to limit the reach of Facebook from within:
- Adjust your Facebook settings. With all the focus on privacy recently, Facebook has tried to make its privacy options stronger. It’s always a good idea to check your privacy settings. However, it’s impossible to opt out of all the ways Facebook collects data on you.
- Revoke the Facebook app’s permissions. If you’re still concerned that Facebook is spying on you through the app, you can revoke the app’s access to your camera and microphone. Then you won’t be able to take picture directly through the Facebook app. But you can be more sure that the app isn’t watching or listening to you.
Facebook Is Harvesting Your Data
The bug which let the Facebook app open users’ cameras without permission really does appear to have been an honest mistake. However, Facebook doesn’t need to use your camera or microphone to spy on you. It already has more than enough information about you to predict your behavior.
This is just one of the many problems Facebook has had regarding privacy and security. Here’s why Facebook is a security and privacy nightmare.