There have been so many times I’ve mentioned my fondness for Instagram. It is, hands down, my favorite social media app. Just last week, I attended a social media workshop hosted by the American Marketing Association and, at the end of the presentation, the speaker spent a great deal of time talking about Snapchat. Right there, in the workshop, I downloaded the app to my phone but, by the end of the day, I had deleted it. Snapchat is not for me. It’s for my children and, knowing that I’m not on Snapchat probably brings my children a great deal of joy. So, if you’re looking for me on social media, I suggest you search for me on Instagram (I’m @deidrariggs).
As with all things tech, and especially tech things involving our handheld devices (formally known as phones), issues of privacy should always be top of mind. When we download apps to our devices, many of us give permissions to the platform without really realizing it. We click through the “Terms of Service” without actually reading what we’re getting ourselves into and, in some instances, we give the platform access to functionalities without considering the implications.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my children were here, along with their significant others. We had a blast together. Quite naturally, we had some important conversations and our devices were always close by. One theme of our holiday conversations was my son’s dream of moving to Montana to raise a family, grow some food, and care for a few animals. The topic of Montana came up frequently in the time we were together. My husband even played Frank Zappa’s song, “Montana” on his iPhone, for all of us to enjoy.
Then, one night, I was scrolling through Instagram when this ad showed up in my feed:
I was instantly suspicious. This wasn’t the first time I’d had a conversation and then logged on to Instagram to find what seemed to be a targeted ad in my feed. But, how did they know? Is Instagram secretly listening to my conversations? Jokingly, I texted the screenshot to my son and said, “Instagram has spies.”
My son texted me back and said, “I think they can hear us when we speak and find keywords. I just told someone that today.”
I did a quick Google search and discovered my son and I are not the only ones who’ve had this experience. In a BBC article, author Zoe Kleinman writes:
I challenged cybersecurity expert Ken Munro and his colleague David Lodge from Pen Test Partners to see whether it was physically possible for an app to snoop in this way.
Could something “listen in” at will without it being obvious?
“I wasn’t convinced at first, it all seemed a bit anecdotal,” admitted Mr Munro.
However, to our collective surprise, the answer was a resounding yes.
Crazy, huh? While the article didn’t mention Instagram, after reading I decided to do a little bit of investigation on my own. I discovered the Instagram app on my phone did, indeed, have access to my device’s microphone! I don’t doubt that I had given the app “permission” to access the mic when I downloaded the platform.
On my iPhone, I found three different apps with access to the microphone: Instagram, Voxer, and Heads Up. I turned off the mic on both Instagram and Heads Up. Here’s how you can check to see if apps are accessing your iPhone microphone, too:
Go to “Settings”
The device will display any applications that have requested access to your device’s microphone. There, you can switch the microphone to “off” for those applications you’d rather not have listening in to your everyday conversations.
So, you may be wondering a few things, by now.
Aren’t you overreacting? Of course, it could all be coincidence, and I could be overreacting. But, for now, I’m leaving my microphone settings “off” for apps that seem to be targeting ads in my direction.
Is this legal? I don’t know the legal implications. I imagine some of this is covered in the Terms of Service for each app. And, when we give permission to an app to access our microphones, we’re probably giving in to more than we once realized.
What about using the mic for video and stories? While it may be a bit clunky, turning the mic on for video and stories and then off again when you’re done recording might be your best bet.
I’m not a tech genius, by any stretch of the imagination. But, the thought of strangers listening in to my holiday conversations is a bit too weird to me, even though it’s probably a computer listening in and not a real person at all. Maybe I’ll follow my son to Montana one day, live off the grid, and forget about Instagram altogether. But, until that day comes, my microphone is set to”off.”
Such good stuff to know. Glad you shared this. Might be a good time to encrypt one’s phone as well.
Also, on Android phones to turn off the microphone (or other features) by app:
Go to Settings >> Applications >> Application Manager, then tap the little dots at the top and choose Application Permissions. You’ll get a list of features (microphone, camera, body sensor, etc) and can choose the microphone and then run through the apps and turn off those that don’t need it for normal functioning.
I understand that some apps can flip these back during updates without explicit permission so it may be something to check from time to time.
“encrypt one’s phone”??? How does one do that???
I would like to know this as well!
LW sent me this in an email:
Here’s how to encrypt for Android:
Well that’s a new level of creepy. Amazon searches have shown up in Facebook ad’s for quite some time, and I’ve sort of gotten used to it. Listening to audible conversations is a whole new level, though…
I was wondering the same thing last week. I’ve had that happen several times recently.
Same here! I was creeped out but I thought I was overreacting. Wow. Thanks Deidra!
Oh yes… to all of it (except maybe Montana!) 😉 Yes to Snapchat (and our kids exhale that we aren’t there) and yes to the mic being turned off on all things (except for Voxer, of course!)
Jody Ohlsen Collins
Deidra, I’ve got a Smartphone (Android) and dinked around a bit with the App to find out how to turn off the microphone….not successful, but I’ll keep trying.
(on another note, It made me smile to see a reference to Frank Zappa….brings back some crazy memories).
Thanks for all this info. Much appreciated.
Did you see LW’s comment, above, Jody? Instructions for Android, as you requested. 🙂
Jody Ohlsen Collins
Ahhhhh, thanks! I did notice looking at the License Agreement (I think that’s it) that Facebook owns Instagram as of 2012. But ya’ll probably knew that.
Sonya La McCllough
Thanks for the awesome info, I had no idea! This is a little off topic but when I first started blogging, it took 8 months for an image to migrate from my blog to google. And now it takes 8 days. Google is still, hands down the number one search engine!
Sonya La McCllough
Also, another off topic point: GoDaddy now collects your not purchased ideas and sells them at crazy high prices. So, if you are not ready to purchase domain names, do not type into search box.
Dolly @ Soulstops.com
Nicholas Carr talked about this happening in his book, The Shallows, how we don’t realize how much privacy we give up online with social media, although he didn’t mention Instagram, but you get the general idea http://www.nicholascarr.com/?page_id=16 This was also mentioned a while ago by the reporter Julia Angwin in her book, Dragnet Nation https://www.propublica.org/site/author/julia_angwin
So your son is correct. Thanks for sharing 🙂 Merry Christmas early.
Dolly @ Soulstops.com
Here’s another article about tracking people and their buying habits online etc. https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking
My kids where talking to me about these new spinner toys – next thing I know spinner ads are popping up on instagrams ads. Since intagram and Facebook are connected I get same ads. Facebook might not be listening but it’ll get your info from instagram. That’s crazy but I guess it’s free
They’re monitoring texts too, I just had a text conversation with a friend about some restaurants and lo & behold I have an ad about the one we chose to eat at. ????
I know this is an old post but stumbled on it because I have creepy example of Insta using my microphone and was searching for articles. Today an ad showed up in my feed about “Cord Clamping for expectant parents.” I follow nothing pregnancy related, dont search for baby things and dont want children, so I am not a target customer. BUT! Last night I had a conversation out loud with some friends about how one girl had cut her umbilical cord for her 2nd baby. CREEPY! Settings now updated.
OMG SAME THING happen to me!!! I am expecting a little one and we ere talking about Viacord. Then that night Viacord pops up in my feed!! WTF
I just checked my settings, and the microphone was on for both WhatsApp and Instagram. Those are the only ones, but both belonging to the same company: Facebook. I hate this spying they do and want my right of privacy as a EU citizen.