Facebook makes another creepy information power grab

There are good reasons why we don't want Mark Zuckerberg keeping tabs on every TV show we watch or song we hear

Published May 21, 2014 9:43PM (EDT)

  (AP/Ben Margot)
(AP/Ben Margot)

Here's a conundrum. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Facebook is incorporating in its mobile app the ability to recognize what songs or TV shows you are listening to or watching. The new functionality includes capabilities that I have long appreciated and even celebrated in other apps. But when Facebook does it, I am swamped with dismay.

Users who begin a post after turning on the feature will notice a tiny audio equalizer with undulating blue bars, indicating the app has detected sound and is attempting to match it to a song or television show. Once the app finds a match, users will see the title of the song and a thumbnail, such as an album cover or a photo of a talk-show host. By tapping on the show or song, users can post it to their news feeds and let other users know what Facebook has already figured out – what they’re seeing and hearing.

In essence, Facebook is adding nothing more than what Shazam has been doing for years. And I love Shazam -- the first time I saw its music-matching abilities demonstrated I considered it the next best thing to magic. And yet, my gut reaction to the Facebook announcement is negative. I don't want this. It's creepy.

There are at least two reasons for my discomfort. The first is the mismatch between what I use Facebook for, and what Facebook uses me for. The second is my fundamental lack of trust in Facebook as a responsible guardian of my personal information.

I use Facebook to connect to friends and family (and to a lesser extent, to communicate my journalism work to followers). But Facebook uses me to generate advertising revenue. The Wall Street Journal reports that even if you do not choose to share with your friends the fact that you are bingeing on "Archer" at 3 in the morning or listening to Katy Perry in the middle of the work day, "Facebook will hold onto the data in anonymous form, keeping tabs on how many users watched particular shows." This will make Facebook a Nielsen-like player in the entertainment ratings game, and generate more data for effective ad targeting.

Shazam, of course, is engaged in the same advertising and information-gathering game. But Shazam is much, much less well informed about all my other activities than Facebook is. Facebook already knows too much.

The second factor gets to something that I've written about repeatedly. Facebook's history gives us little reason to trust Facebook. Facebook's record on privacy is particularly worrisome.

The Wall Street Journal reports that users can switch off the feature. Great. But will it be enabled by default? And if I turn it off, when Facebook releases the next version of its app, will the function remain turned off? Or will my efforts to prevent Facebook from listening to my Spotify playlists be similar to Facebook's Top Stories/Most Recent ridiculousness, in which I am constantly forced to remind Facebook how I want my News Feed organized. And if I do opt to share my entertainment consumption habits, how widely will that information be disseminated?

If there's been one dominant technological narrative of the past couple of years, it's that the public in general has become much more aware of and alarmed by just how much information governments and private corporations are gathering about our daily activities. What was once gee whiz -- hey, I can wave my phone at the car radio and find out what song I'm hearing! -- is now ominous -- hey, Facebook is monitoring everything I listen to and watch, all the time!

What was once cool is now creepy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Facebook Music Privacy Shazam Television Tv