Facebook wants access to your mobile phone’s microphone.
Why would this ever be a good idea? Well it seems so they can extract the titles of songs and TV content playing around you, then automatically add it to your status updates. How nice of them!
The new second-hand smoke
Even if you don’t have a FB enabled listening device, someone around you might. This starts reaching levels of taking photos of people in public spaces without their permission. Move over Photo Facial Recognition, someday soon, FB will use artificial intelligence algorithms to match your voice using sampled audio. FB already knows everything you tell them, what you look like and now will know what you sound like too.
Outside of these already obvious privacy issues, what if the software is buggy and listens more than it should, or ignores the user’s selection to turn it off. Looking forward, like other past new services, they start as opt-in then quietly turn to opt-out with the next TOS update.
Why take such risks as a company in a time when privacy is a premium?
Maybe it is just my speculation, but it sounds to my ears more like a silly excuse they came up with to launch a powerful feature they couldn’t otherwise. In all sincerity, the NSA and Anti-piracy movement are both future growth markets to build for. The press is ripe with stories of the NSA strong-arming corporations for private data. As well as corporations litigating end-users over copyright infringement. If the NSA are willing to pay FB, or force them with the threat of jail-time, which option would Mark chose? It seems they will get the data one way or another. A system like this can serve both markets nicely. Targeted Ads are the lowest value on the list in my opinion. FB is famous for having low click-through and purchase conversion rates. Most don’t go on FB to buy things, they go there to spy on people.
I could imagine the NSA wanting to partner with social media giants instead of fight them in open court. Why fight for something you can pay handsomely for? Open search access to previously recorded audio, as well as the ability to flag individuals that FB should monitor more closely moving forward. It is win-win for FB. The value to have access to audio, is much greater than access to what content titles end users like, a direct site survey is more effective and accurate for that. This is why I don’t trust FB here, no matter what they say, unless the code is published no one knows the truth.
Here is Facebook’s statement they recently released on the subject of privacy and this new feature:
“No matter how interesting your conversation, this feature does not store sound or recordings. Facebook isn’t listening to or storing your conversations. Here’s how it works: if you choose to turn the feature on, when you write a status update, the app converts any sound into an audio fingerprint on your phone. This fingerprint is sent to our servers to try to match it against our database of audio and TV fingerprints. By design, we do not store fingerprints from your device for any amount of time. And in any event, the fingerprints can’t be reversed into the original audio because they don’t contain enough information.”
Like many past statements, I think this is mostly hand-waving. It sounds like one way hashing but even if this is the case, who is anyone to say FB can’t update this feature in the future and provide streaming or other forms of recording “fingerprints”. With so little return for the end-user, I can’t see how FB could be risking this much brand loyalty for such an easily misunderstood feature. One that will only add to the negative stigma their brand already has to fight against.
No matter the actual technology used here, once the story is old and out of the press cycle, new users to Facebook will have little clue this app is even part of Facebook and the whole world will have moved another tick on the measure away from privacy. Most will have it running and not realize it, just like all the other past intrusions FB has added. Why stop at phones? If this takes off, PCs and Tablets and Smart TVs will be next, soon FB will have digital ears and access across the globe in every form-factor imaginable.
Even if we give FB the benefit of the doubt, and all this tech is 100% as they claim and not targeting NSA markets, you can bet the NSA will be calling them very soon if not hacking them already.