Big Brother Is Really Listening

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Facebook users already know that in addition to videos of kittens and your friends enjoying fabulous vacations in faraway lands, “sponsored” advertisements appear in your newsfeed. Some are related to what you define in your profile as “interests,” but most are targeting you based on your online shopping habits.

Every time I visit a web page or browse a product, a related advertisement somehow magically appears in my newsfeed. At first, I thought it was just a coincidence, but it started happening more frequently. I always wondered how Facebook could become a multi-billion dollar company when the service is “free,” so it’s no surprise they are tracking my preferences and purchases. After all, what could be more important to advertisers than targeting people interested in their products?

That’s not my issue here. Although I didn’t read the user agreement when I signed up (who does?), I knew there must be something buried in there about how they use my information. Sometimes, I challenge myself to search for obscure items on the web, just to see if I get that targeted advertisement. Of course, Facebook never fails.

I started noticing it a few years ago, while innocently searching for replacement kitchen cabinet hinges. Wouldn’t you know, next time I checked my Facebook newsfeed, I had “sponsored” advertisements for not only kitchen cabinet replacement hinges, but my specific kitchen cabinet replacement hinge. What’s the chances of that?

Once, after using a public computer on vacation, I found targeted ads for whale watching, which I was searching for while in Maine. How does Facebook make that connection?
Companies advertise on television, radio or newspapers, betting that the person watching, listening or reading at that time is actually interested in their product. That’s why you see a lot of beer commercials during sporting events, or restaurant advertisements in the weekend section of newspapers. That’s where and when the advertisers are hoping to make a connection. When you think about it, that’s a lot of hit and miss. Sometimes people just go numb when commercials are on and pay no attention.

But Facebook simplifies things for their partners, matching user habits with advertiser products. When you visit a fishing or skiing website, outdoor activity advertisements are targeted for you. If you have the “location services” feature active on your smartphone, Facebook knows exactly where you are all the time, including if you are in a retail store or restaurant.

Advertisers pay Facebook mucho dinero to match their ads to your shopping and browsing habits. Imagine if an advertiser could request their hiking boot advertisement be directed to males between the ages of 20-30 that love the outdoors? They could never gather that information on their own, but Facebook can. If you don’t believe me, read the Facebook User Agreement you blindly agreed to when you first signed up.

But what about your conversations? Surely even Facebook can’t tap into those, can they? Although they can use any audio you upload as part of a video, Facebook insists they are not listening to your “private” conversations. Maybe Facebook isn’t listening, but somebody certainly is.

This weekend, my wife and I were in my car, heading to a restaurant for dinner. While having a conversation about things we needed to do, the subject of filling our five-gallon gas can for the snow blower came up. I had the can in the back of my car but didn’t fill it up because the spout was broken, and I didn’t want the gas to leak out into my car. We casually discussed getting a new container because you can’t just get a new spout.

As God is my witness, a targeted advertisement showed up in my Facebook feed the next day, touting replacement gas spouts for five-gallon, plastic containers. The image was even in the same color (red) as my gas can. Could they be more specific?

Maybe it’s time to implement the “Cone of Silence” from the old Get Smart TV show so no one can hear our conversations. Although I’m sure as soon as this is published, I’ll get a targeted advertisement for the complete Get Smart DVD Collection.

And yes, I bought that replacement gas can spout. It was only $2.95 on Amazon plus free shipping.

Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.

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