Is Instagram listening in on our face to face conversations?

Intern-al Issues is a fortnightly blog written by our Intern Ciaran that looks at the latest issues and trends in digital marketing. Enjoy!

Recently I’ve heard from a few different people who are convinced that Instagram has been listening in on their conversations.

Whether they’ve been discussing laptops, flights or teapots, they’ve assured me that they have seen targeted ads on Instagram shortly afterwards.

At first I was dubious. I suggested that perhaps they had searched for these products and services online at an earlier time and forgotten about it, which would explain the advertising. When they shot down that theory and the coincidences began to pile up, I started to think, what if Instagram is indeed listening to our conversations and tailoring ads accordingly?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised how plausible it might be, and not so far-fetched after all. When first downloading Instagram (if you can remember that time), the app asks for certain access permissions. One of them is your microphone, which you assume is to record audio during your videos, so the app certainly has the capability. (Now might be a nice time to reconsider your app permissions).

In this day and age, voice control is rapidly becoming the way of the future. With iPhone’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and now Samsung’s Bixby, virtual assistants relying on voice control are moving towards becoming an essential feature of every household, contributing to your Internet of things.

Facebook has denied using users microphones for advertising and confirmed that this is also the case with Instagram. But with the current media storm surrounding Facebook’s data breach, this is not the most reassuring statement coming from a possibly unreliable source.

Instagram is one of the leading social media platforms in delivering relevant ads. Once you’ve built your online persona, the app can derive the content that you are most interested in and select ads based on your activity. For example, the ads could be based on your followers, likes, information, interests, or the websites that you visit. We’re all aware that when we take online actions, we can expect to see online ads.

And this is why you get a funny feeling when you talk to someone about soft drink, and see a Fanta ad while scrolling moments later. I will continue to run tests and have artificial conversations to try to get to the bottom of this, but as it stands, it’s an uneasy thought. If Instagram is listening to our conversations, then which other apps are following suit? Where do we draw the line in regard to the ethics of social media advertising?

Ciaran Foster
Ciaran is a Media and Communications student from Perth. He has a passion for anything film or sports related, or both (Shaolin Soccer).