Facebook's new audio feature won't snoop on us, it says

Filed Under: Android, Facebook, Featured, iOS, Privacy

Not listening. Image courtesy of Shutterstock. Just to clear things up, Facebook declared this week, we will not be eavesdropping NSA-style when we listen in on your TV and music.

Two weeks ago, Facebook proposed to Android and iOS users in the US that it would like to recognise and post news feed updates about the TV shows and movies we're watching and the songs we're listening to.

As it said at the time, the new feature would be off by default, only slurping up background sound if a user gives it the go-ahead.

With your say-so, the audio feature will then grind through its recognition machinery to identify the song, movie or TV show you're listening to.

When it initially announced the eavesdroppish new service, Facebook didn't say anything about listening in on background noise, including private conversations.

But this week, Facebook's security head honcho, Gregg Stefancik, filled in that gap.

Stefancik, head of security infrastructure for the very-data-rich, o-so-good-at-data-mining social network, explicitly told journalists that the new audio feature does not snoop on users and does not record conversations.

The Guardian quoted him as he addressed journalists during a trip to Australia:

The microphone doesn't turn itself on. It will ask for permission. It's not always listening... so it's very limited in what it is sampling.

Similar to other audio-recognition apps, like Soundhound or Shazam, Facebook's new feature will create an “audio fingerprint” of the background sounds as a user types a status update.

Then, it compares the audio fingerprint with Facebook’s database of music and television shows, which reportedly contains millions of recorded songs and shows currently broadcasting on over 150 channels.

If it makes a match, Facebook will notify a user and give him or her the option of adding the song or programme to a status post.

The raw audio never leaves the phone, Stefancik said, while the data about the match is only stored if a user opts to post it:

The user is in complete control and the audio fingerprint that we've received is disposed of immediately.

The app can't identify background noise and conversation before the feature is enabled.

After all, that would be kind of stalker-ish, Stefancik said:

I wouldn't want this in my pocket either if it was recording everything going on around me.

Ditto. Neither would we!

Image of not listening courtesy of Shutterstock.

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8 Responses to Facebook's new audio feature won't snoop on us, it says

  1. Anonymous · 486 days ago

    When I click links in your newsletter, shouldn't they default to HTTPS?

  2. Sammie · 486 days ago

    Looks like FB is digging their own grave. People are getting more and more annoyed with the way they treat their users and this new so called feature wants to force you into posting things they think would get them more revenue. Maybe in the future there might be a contract FB signs with the music companies so that they can snoop in on the audio quality and identify pirated music and take actions on the users or mine data about what type of music is being listened based on age, geography, sex, time etc and show you ads based on these or even get the music companies to do it for a fee. Stop leaving a trail of your life for FB to sell and the best thing to do is to remove the FB app from all of your smart phones and to access FB only from a stand alone PC you don't use for anything else.

    • SkyMage · 485 days ago

      Does anyone like/want/need facebook badly enough to have a computer in their home dedicated exclusively to facebook?

      • Sammie · 485 days ago

        Not that I know of. The right question is "Does anyone want FB badly enough?" The remaining is irrelevant.

    • THR007 · 485 days ago

      Well said...

  3. Catman · 485 days ago

    Peeping Toms around the world now don't have to worry about the dog or the rain or an irate owner, they'll just peep thru your computer.

    Where's my SOMA?

  4. And the real reason for developing such technology - further data for sale to advertisers.....

  5. David Pottage · 485 days ago

    I still don't trust facebook on this.

    What happens in the sound fingerprinting system identifies a song, move or TV show that has not been released yet in your country? Could you get reported for downloading pirate media? What it it recognises a pr0n film, and includes the title, and a link in your update?

    Come to think of it, if you live in an oppressive regime, could facebook be compelled to report you if it hears the voice of a banned opposition leader? Remember it is not that long ago that the voices of certain Irish republicans where banned from the airwaves in the UK.

    Secondly, whatever facebook say about asking permission first, and not sending the sound file to their servers, that could all change next time they update their app, which I predict they will in about a year when most people have forgotten about this.

    Sadly Android does not have a feature in it's permissions model to enforce the "ask every time" idea on permissions. You have to allow the app to get the data any time, and then trust that it will ask.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.