Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christoper Wylie, appearing before a committee of British MPs on Tuesday, said that Facebook has the ability to spy on users in their homes and offices.
The British parliament is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Brexit election. MP Damian Collins, who chaired the committee, asked Wyle whether Facebook has the ability to listen to what people are talking about in order to better target them with ads.
“There’s been various speculation about the fact that Facebook can, through the Facebook app on your smartphone, listen in to what people are talking about and discussing and using that to prioritize the advertising as well,” Collins said. “Other people would say, no, they don’t think it’s possible. It’s just that the Facebook system is just so good at predicting what you’re interested in that it can guess.” He asked for Wylie’s thoughts on the possibility.
“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.
“I run ads product at Facebook. We don’t – and have never – used your microphone for ads. Just not true,” Rob Goldman, vice president of ads products at Facebook, tweeted on October 2017. “That includes Facebook-owned Instagram,” he added.
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.
During the hearing, the former employee of Cambridge Analytica, who told MPs that he’s a “progressive Euroskeptic,” was also asked whether the company used “coercion to achieve their desired electoral results.”
Citing the “Nigeria project” as an example, Wylie said he “got incredibly panicked phone calls” from people involved in the project. “Several people were threatened with their lives and they had to immediately leave the country,” he said.
Wylie told the committee that he was informed by Cambridge Analytica shortly after he began his position that Dan Muresan, his predecessor, had been poisoned and died in Kenya after a political deal went wrong. Emphasizing that what he had heard was “pure speculation,” Wylie said he had been told police had been bribed not to enter the hotel room where Muresan had been found.
“My predecessor was found dead. One of my former coworkers had a massive head injury and is missing part of his skull. People do get hurt at this firm.” He added that people are afraid to come forward to talk about the company “because it’s that intimidating.”
In an apparent pushback, Cambridge Analytica tweeted that Wylie’s role in the company had been limited.
You can watch the entire hearing below. The discussion of Facebook’s alleged audio surveillance begins at 2:58.