Is Facebook Getting a Little Too “Big Brother?”

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Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) recently updated its mobile app with a notable new ability: listening to your environment. Starting this week, the mobile app has been upgraded with the optional feature of using a smartphone’s microphone to listen for background music or television shows, including the media’s data in any status updates or messages users share. The feature is optional, of course, but Facebook hopes to get enough users to opt-in to idea that the company will be able to boost its targeted ad prices, bringing in additional revenue. For users, the idea is to make their favorite music and television shows easier to share with their friends.

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As AppleInsider explains, users will be briefed on the new feature, and given a tutorial upon receiving the update version of the app. Users will be given the option to turn the feature on, which they can do by selecting an audio icon towards the top portion of the application’s interface. Facebook assures everyone that none of the audio data will be saved, and that users will be prompted with the option to cancel before actually sending a message or making a post.

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The new feature looks to be a winner for Facebook, only if they can get enough users to opt-in. With an additional pile of data coming in through every user’s feed, the social networking giant can use that data to entice advertisers looking to purchase targeted ads. According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook was able to make deals with music-streaming sites like Spotify Radio to help with its audio capture abilities, and the company was also able to cement a plan to capture content from 160 television stations across the country.

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Another possible route Facebook could push for revenues is by using the audio data it collects to compile television ratings and user data related to song counts. With an enormous users base to draw data from, Facebook could be able to gather enough data to piece together detailed reporting that it can bring to advertisers. As of February of this year, Pew Research reports that 57 percent of all American adults and 73 percent of teenagers ages 12-17 use the social network, making for an extraordinary opportunity to gather data, if enough opt-in.

The major issue with Facebook’s new development is whether or not users will cite privacy as a big concern. With the revelations brought to the public’s attention regarding the NSA’s domestic intelligence gathering over the past year, privacy has been a major issue in the tech world. As it was found that many companies, including Facebook, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) were all going along with government demands for user data, Facebook users have every reason to be skeptical of the upgraded application.

Another question Facebook executives should be asking is whether or not anyone would actually want to use this feature at all. On the surface, capturing background noise in the comfort of your own home, with only a button’s push stopping it from being broadcast to potentially hundreds of people, is a bit of an odd idea. Some users will undoubtedly jump on board, but for the casual user, what’s the advantage? Facebook itself looks to be the only winner in the exchange, with the ability to collect more data.

Microsoft tried something similar last year when it first announced the new Xbox One video game console. The console was set to ship with its paired motion-capture device, called the Kinect, which had been previously introduced for the Xbox 360. Microsoft had the idea of allowing the Kinect to capture user’s reactions to commercials and other media, and report the data back to the company. Similar to Facebook’s plan, Microsoft planned to use the data bolster advertisement sales, until there was enough public outcry that they were forced to scrap the idea.

Could there be a similar reaction to Facebook’s idea? There is a big difference between having a camera sitting in your living room and an optional audio capture feature, of course. But after seeing just how big of a push back Microsoft received from its Kinect debacle, it’s a bit surprising Facebook was willing to give this a shot. If users do end up using it, or some at least, it could set a precedent for more invasive developments by tech companies. It’s not hard to think that after a while the audio capture might become a mandatory part of the Facebook experience, and bury the terms and agreement within its user agreement. Ars Technica points to a recent example of just such a change up in the case of search opt-out, which users had removed after Facebook claimed less than one percent of its patrons actually used.

Facebook’s new audio capture feature may not be the best idea, but it certainly does have revenue generating potential for the social network. The trick will be convincing users to opt-in, so the company will have access to data. But given privacy concerns and other unintended consequences that may stem from the new feature, many people might not be interested in giving Facebook even more insight into their lives. However, if Facebook’s attempt is successful, look for many other companies to make a push for more invasive features, leading to even more of user’s private lives being forced out into the open.

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