For a few years now, rumours have circulated among Instagram users that the app must be listening to private conversations in order to target advertisements. There are hundreds of reports from people who claim they have been talking with friends when all of a sudden, an advertisement for a related product appears in their feed.

Because these occurrences are so accurate (and spooky), many users are suspicious that Instagram is recording and analysing their conversations. And the fact that Instagram has access to their smartphone’s microphone means that the app could actually make covert recordings.

Nothing to worry about. Maybe.

In a recent interview with CBS news, Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri was clear – the app does not listen to your conversations. Instead he proposed two reasons why we see ads related to conversations we’ve just had.

First, Mosseri suggested ‘dumb luck’ – ads that are highly relevant and which just happen to be shown to us at the right moment. The second was slightly more complicated: ‘You might be talking about something because it’s top of mind because you’ve been interacting with that type of content more recently. It’s top of mind, maybe it’s subconscious and then it bubbles up later.’

A more likely reason

There is a third – and even more likely reason – however. Instagram and Facebook both use extensive data mining algorithms to generate an incredibly detailed and accurate understanding of you as a person.

These services know where you live, how much you earn, your political and sexual preferences, who your friends are and your likes and dislikes for instance. All of these details are collected based on what you share online and the type of content you interact with – including on other websites.

These algorithms then try to display adverts that are most relevant to you at a specific moment in time. It is very likely that your conversations relate to content you have seen online, and because Instagram knows what you have read/watched recently, it displays an advert related to that subject.

Mosseri knows that many people are shocked by how much Instagram knows about them and how invasive the data mining algorithms are – which is why his proposed explanation for ‘spooky ads’ is so vague.

How to protect yourself

The only definite way to protect yourself against spooky, invasive ads is to avoid social media altogether – but for most of us that’s not an option. You can take steps to better protect your privacy however – we’ve produced an easy-to-use guide to walk you through the process.

So even if Instagram isn’t listening to your conversations, their ad targeting mechanism is probably a lot more creepy than you realise.

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