Image: Public Domain

In his testimony before the British Parliament, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christoper Wylie is testifying that Facebook has the ability to “listen in” on us as we go about our business at work and at home. Said Wylie:

“On a comment about using audio and processing audio, you can use it for, my understanding generally of how companies use it… not just Facebook, but generally other apps that pull audio, is for environmental context,” Wylie said. “So if, for example, you have a television playing versus if you’re in a busy place with a lot of people talking versus a work environment.” He clarified, “It’s not to say they’re listening to what you’re saying. It’s not natural language processing. That would be hard to scale. But to understand the environmental context of where you are to improve the contextual value of the ad itself” is possible.

Wylie continued: “There’s audio that could be useful just in terms of are you in an office environment, are you outside, are you watching TV?”

Facebook has long denied allegations that its app listens in on users in order to customize ads.[…] But users have raised concerns about the practice after observing that they’ve been targeted with ads for products they’ve never expressed an interest in online. Many Facebook users have reported examples and alleged evidence that the app is listening in on their conversations.

This put me in mind of a 2016 Aleteia piece written by Diane Montagna, wherein she wondered, Is Facebook listening to your confession?

…more and more priests are taking their phones into the confessional, because they find the portability and ease of a smartphone more practical for praying the Divine Office than carrying a hardbound book. Similarly, penitents sometimes prefer to use a phone app to make an examination of conscience before their confession, and often they bring that app with them into the confessional, to easily reference their sins.

Fr. Pinsent and others are therefore keen that the Church look into these issues in more detail, and that bishops be provided with expert advice based on the necessary technical expertise.

Facebook “listening” technology uses the same algorithmic technology that allows your smartphone to identify a song playing in a restaurant. The phone uploads “waveforms” of ambient sound picked up in its microphone, then compares those waveforms to a massive database of nearly all recorded music. When it finds the match, it reports it back to you. This is all accomplished nearly instantaneously. These same “listening” algorithms now track certain words or phrases as they are picked up on the phone’s microphone. So, if you are talking with a friend about taking a trip to New Zealand, the algorithm will hear and identify the words “New Zealand,” and then populate your Facebook or Google advertisements with content relative to New Zealand tourism. These same algorithms could very easily be programmed to record data after picking up the sound waveform of the words, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…”

It’s a good piece with lots of information so I recommend reading the whole thing. And keep this in mind:

In light of the sensitivities and the need to safeguard the sacredness of Confession, Dominican Fr. Ezra Sullivan, professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said the penitent has an “obligation to turn the microphone off” to ensure that “his or her privacy, and that of the priest, is preserved, so that no app-developer could listen in to that sacred moment.”

Lots of folks will be going to confession this week. It seems prudent that confessors leave their hardware in the rectory during confession hours, and if penitents can’t leave their phones at home, hand them off to a friend, or turn them off and bury them in a purse or back pocket. Even if our sins are only “little ones”, they’re no one else’s business, and not data for others to mine.

I mean, they say they’re not listening. But why should anyone believe them? In 2009 Zuckerberg said Facebook would never sell your information, too. I was going to say 2009 was the year for lots of big lies, but the trend hasn’t abated in 2018, which is why I listen to the world less and less.

And by the way, if you are curious about how much data your social media habits have picked up on you, read this.

As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio . . . I am deceived from the start. – Thomas Merton