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How Do Instagram Ads Know Everything?

How Do Instagram Ads Know Everything?

by: Emily Gao

It terrifies me. It’s like they are watching my every move. I’ll be at home enjoying a Domino’s pepperoni pizza, and then there will be an ad that pops up on my Instagram feed for Domino’s new tracking app. I signed up to take the SAT yesterday, and this morning, there was a CollegeBoard ad on my feed. I was talking about how I needed new shampoo with my mom the other day. A couple hours later, there was an ad for Pantene’s new Gold-Series shampoo appeared in my feed.

This is something I usually don’t give a second thought to. But upon second thought, I’ve realized how genuinely creepy it is. How do they know? How can they tell?

Instagram’s advertising services cater towards both small and large businesses. Companies have the option of targeting an audience based on specific demographics, given locations, special interests, unique behaviors, and lookalike audiences. Advertisers can also customize their audiences if they have knowledge of their customers’ emails (which is linked to Instagram accounts). Instagram also offers their own algorithm for determining who sees each company’s ads, stating that they can “quickly create an audience who might be interested in your business using a variety of signals including location, demographics, and interests.”

Now, how do social media platforms like Instagram have access to our demographics, locations, interests, and behaviors? We give them permission to do so. The all too well-known procedure of marking a check on the box that states “I agree to the terms and conditions” without even glancing at the document is what allows Instagram to cumulate all this information. By checking that you agree to the terms and conditions, you give Instagram the permission to “show your username, profile picture, and information about your actions (such as likes) or relationships (such as follows) next to or in connection with accounts, ads, offers, and other sponsored content”. This is quoted directly from the Instagram terms of service. I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me that by checking that box, we are basically giving Instagram the right to stalk our every move on their platform.

   Some individuals have even adopted the extreme mindset that Instagram can listen to conversations to determine ads. If you go to your phone’s microphone settings, you will see that the default setting gives Instagram access to your smartphone’s microphone. This has stirred up conspiracy for the notion that Instagram listens in on conversations. I mean, this would explain how they knew to advertise me a new Pantene shampoo after I had just talked about running out of shampoo with my mom. Zoe Kleinman at BBC asked colleagues from Pen Test Partners to “see whether it was physically possible for an app to snoop in this way”. Turns out, it is. Kleinman’s colleagues created a prototype app that could discreetly record and display conversations within the vicinity of a smartphone. Now, this doesn’t prove that Instagram listens in on our conversations, it just proves that the task is possible. There is nowhere in the social media platform’s terms of service that mentions the app’s ability to listen to what we talk about.

   Whether you find this completely absurd or are shrugging this off, the conclusion that these businesses have access to way more than what we are aware of can be drawn. If checking off that “I agree to the terms of service” box on Instagram gives them access to our location, activity, and demographics, think about all the other terms and conditions boxes you have checked. Think about how much information those companies have on you.


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