A smartphone in a handbag: wherever we are, there is usually a microphone
Photo: Getty Images / iStockphoto
One of the most frequent questions that digital journalists get to hear is: "Is Facebook actually listening to us?" The worried questioners are by no means digitally inexperienced people.
Even internet professionals sometimes ask themselves: How far can you trust Facebook, advertising, how far can you trust the Internet in general?
The stories are similar. A colleague from Hamburg reports: "I talked to my son about Lego bricks, and an hour later I see advertisements for the Lego House in Denmark on Instagram." How the Facebook subsidiary comes up with exactly this advertisement is up to you not clear. Her son does not have his own internet access, nor can she recall ever having been to a Lego website. She never entrusted a lot of personal data to Instagram. But the iPhone was wrong when the family talked about the toy building blocks. Was Facebook listening?
In the conversation, however, explanations quickly emerge as to how the advertisement could have come about.
The colleague looked for Lego bricks on eBay's classifieds ads - and Facebook cookies are integrated into the platform.
The family went on a trip to Denmark last year, so they are the target group for Danish tourist attractions.
And of course Lego can have sent the advertisement to as many households as possible in the catchment area - after all, Billund is only a three-hour drive from Hamburg.
Just right for a weekend getaway.
From barbecue to Instagram advertising
Another case: A Hamburg employee of an online company is firmly convinced that Facebook uses more than just its Internet activities to display advertising.
At a barbecue evening with new friends, he talks about the Playstation 5, which he has just ordered through a private contact.
His host talks about the accessory he bought: a steering wheel to play car racing games on the console.
When the hamburger opens the Instagram app in the evening, he immediately sees the advertising of the electronics store chain MediaMarkt, which advertises exactly the steering wheel that he was just talking about.
He too has the suspicion: Facebook has bugged him.
One thing is actually clear: Facebook does not listen
Although online advertising is now a reality for almost all Germans, only a few have a concrete idea of how it works.
But the bugged cell phone is a myth, as numerous media have already written it.
The most important points:
Extracting usable information from personal conversations would be technically possible, but would require a lot of computing power.
If Facebook were to tap into conversations as a matter of routine, this would quickly lead to empty cell phone batteries.
Facebook's apps are among the most studied apps of all.
Hiding an eavesdropping function here that constantly sends information from hundreds of millions of smartphones to the Facebook headquarters seems unrealistic under today's conditions.
For a year now, Apple has had a public dispute with Facebook over data collection on iPhones and other devices.
If companies with sophisticated and secret surveillance programs such as Pegasus can temporarily bypass Apple's security mechanisms, Facebook does not have this option.
In addition, Facebook already has more than enough data on the lives of its users.
On the one hand, of course, the group has a full overview of the activities on its own platform: Do you belong to a cyclist group or a BMW fan club?
Where do you live
How old are you
How much do you think you earn per month?
The Facebook app also records from where users post their updates and where they are going on vacation.
In addition, Facebook also follows them on their forays into the web.
If you click on a link on Facebook, you may notice cryptic codes such as "
fbclid = lwARjahdastgd8iaw1hasdkjggskd58t
in the address
In this way, data from the Facebook world is exchanged with the world outside of Facebook: Which ad brought a buyer to a website?
Which Facebook user clicks through a news page?
If you look into the cookie dialogs on commercial websites and apps, you will find very few that do not provide Facebook data in some way.
What does "eavesdropping" actually mean?
In addition, Facebook denies the bugging rumors.
Again and again.
At the request of SPIEGEL, a spokesman once again clarified: "Facebook does not use the mobile phone microphone to influence advertising or posts in the news feed in any way." When users record a video with sound, the app naturally has to open access the microphone.
At the same time, the Facebook spokesman points out that although many different methods are offered to address the right target group, the booking is placed by the advertisers.
For example, the social media group offers major customers the possibility of uploading their own customer files in order to place their advertising precisely.
Facebook also offers to analyze the existing customer base and put together a tailor-made target group.
As a confidence-building measure, Facebook provided some information on advertising display years ago.
In the advertising settings, users can read down to the last detail which companies last showed them advertisements and which advertisements they clicked on themselves.
But you don't get really smart out of it.
Even the menu item "Why do I see this advertisement", which can be called up for every Facebook advertisement, rarely reveals more than that people of a certain age group in a certain area are to be addressed.
Only in the election campaign is the company a little more informative.
However, users do not find out exactly how advertisers place their ads.
In response to a request from the electronics retail chain MediaMarktSaturn, which had played the steering wheel advertisement,
There is just as clear a denial as on Facebook: Here, too, there is no secret eavesdropping program in progress.
On the one hand, the company does not have the opportunity to do this, and on the other hand it is not necessary at all: "For us, targeting is not an end in itself," explains a company spokeswoman when asked by SPIEGEL.
The fully automated advertisement
The data already available on Facebook was sufficient to target advertisements.
"For us as an advertising company, it has now become much easier to address a target group precisely," says the spokeswoman.
Specifically, it works like this: In many cases, the advertisements are no longer prepared at all. Instead, the advertising department compiles a list of devices that are currently to be promoted. If the algorithms find a Facebook user interested in drones, an ad for drones is displayed. The algorithms draw the image for advertising directly from the product catalog. Anyone who is interested in the Playstation or games in general will receive an offer for the Playstation. Or, if the console is not available, an accessory will be advertised. For a steering wheel, for example.
In fact, a look at the Instagram advertising profile of the Hamburg IT employee shows that Facebook recognized him as a Playstation user. In this respect, the mysterious advertisement for the electronics chain is just daily business: an advertising display that worked exceptionally well. Facebook users can see on a daily basis that this is by far not always the case when they actually pay attention to the ads and discover that a lot is completely irrelevant to them at the moment.
Nevertheless, the Hamburg Playstation fan is not convinced. That the advertisement just appears because he is interested in the game console, as it is in his Facebook interest profile? "No, coincidence would be just too brutal for me," says the 30-year-old. In addition, something like this happens to him again and again. Instead of reading every single data protection declaration and reducing his data protection settings, he now wants to make a clear cut and delete the Instagram app.