Facebook had two big announcements this week that show the company’s wildly divergent takes on the nature of privacy. One announcement is that the company is encouraging new users to initially share only with their “friends” rather than with the general public, the previous default. And for existing users, the company plans to break out the old “privacy dinosaur” to do a “ check-up” to remind people of how they’re sharing. Facebook employees say that using an extinct creature as a symbol for privacy isn’t subtle messaging, but simply an icon to which their users respond well. Meanwhile, Facebook’s second announcement indicated just how comfortable they think their users are in sharing every little thing happening in their lives. Facebook is rolling outa new feature for its smartphone app that can turn on users’ microphones and listen to what’s happening around them to identify songs playing or television being watched. The pay-off for users in allowing Facebook to eavesdrop is that the social giant will be able to add a little tag to their status update that says they’re watching an episode of Games of Thrones as they sound off on their happiness (or despair) about the rise in background sex on TV these days.
“The aim was to remove every last bit of friction from the way we reference bits of pop culture on the social network,” writes Ryan Tate of Wired. Depending on how you feel about informational privacy and/or your friends’ taste in pop culture, that statement is either exhilarating or terrifying.
The feature is an optional one, something the company emphasizes in its announcement. The tech giant does seem well-aware that in these days of Snowden surveillance revelations, people might not be too keen for Facebook to take control of their smartphone’s mic and start listening in on them by default. It’s only rolling out the feature in the U.S. and a product PR person emphasized repeatedly that no recording is being stored, only “code.” “We’re not recording audio or sound and sending it to Facebook or its servers,” says Facebook spokesperson Momo Zhou. “We turn the audio it hears into a code — code that is not reversible into audio — and then we match it against a database of code.”
If a Facebooker opts in, the feature is only activated when he or she is composing an update. When the smartphone’s listening in — something it can only do through the iOS and Android apps, not through Facebook on a browser — tiny blue bars will appear to announce the mic has been activated. Facebook says the microphone will not otherwise be collecting data. When it’s listening, it tells you it is “matching,” rather than how I might put it, “eavesdropping on your entertainment of choice.”
It reminds me of GPS-tagging an update, but with cultural context rather than location deets. While you decide whether to add the match to a given Facebook update, Facebook gets information about what you were listening to or watching regardless, though it won’t be associated with your profile. “If you don’t choose to post and the feature detects a match, we don’t store match information except in an anonymized form that is not associated with you,” says Zhou. Depending on how many people turn the feature on, it will be a nice store of information about what Facebook users are watching and listening to, even in anonymized form.
Sure, we’re used to features like this thanks to existing apps that will recognize a song for us. But usually when you activate those apps, you’re explicitly doing so to find out the name of a song. Facebook is hoping to make that process a background activity to composing a status update — a frictionless share that just happens, the real-world version of linking your Spotify account to your social media account allowing playlists to leak through. Facebook spent a yearhoning its audio sampling and developing a catalog of content — millions of songs and 160 television stations — to match against. It’s obvious that it wants to displace Twitter TWTR +10.69% as the go-to place for real-time commenting on sporting events, awards shows, and other communal television watching. “With TV shows, we’ll actually know the exact season and episode number you’re watching,” says Zhou. “We built that to prevent spoilers.”
So the question now is whether people are willing to give Facebook eavesdropping powers in exchange for a little Shazam.