June 11, 2018, the official La Liga application set off alarms. Apparently, the tool used the GPS and the microphone to discover pirated broadcasts of bars and restaurants that offered free football to their customers. Months later, the National Data Protection Agency fined the organization 250,000 euros.
Along with La Liga, a multitude of applications have put his reputation in question for alleged spying. An example of this is Instagram , an application that in addition to belonging to Facebook, has been criticized by some computer security experts. Dani Creus, Senior Security Researcher at Kaspersky, is clear, "it has been shown that there are applications that spy on our conversations through the microphone." But what truth is there in this statement really? We have tried ordinary conversations for a week on the phone and these are our conclusions.
What Instagram says
After analyzing in depth the conditions specified in Instagram's public document regarding Data Policy, the points that come closest to the use of the microphone as a data collection tool for the personalization of ads are the following:
- Device configuration data : information that you allow us to receive when activating the corresponding configuration in the device, such as access to the GPS location, the camera and the photos.
- Device characteristics : Information such as operating system, hardware and software version, battery charge level, signal strength, available storage space, browser type, application or file types and names , and plugins.
Does this confirm that Instagram does not spy on our conversations? Nothing is further from reality. At the moment in which we grant Camera and Microphone permissions to the application, the service is free to use background processes with the excuse of push notifications to collect data and cross profiles. In fact, the application reserves the right to use the camera and photos to store information . When it comes to the use of the microphone, we can only speculate. Let's see what reality tells us.
What we have verified
Our conditions: a week, several conversations with different people on ordinary topics and a mobile on the table with Instagram in multitasking. You can see the conclusions below.
First case: "Mom, we have to buy food for the dog"
During the first days of testing the hot topic has surrounded everything that has to do with canine feeding . Last Monday, November 11, I had a conversation with my sister and my mother where the main topic was based on dog food. Sentences such as “I think there is little food left for the dog”, “if you are going out tomorrow morning buy food for the dog” or “don't forget that the size of the food has to be junior” . It goes without saying that at no time have Internet searches been conducted with terms related to the keywords at hand . The result?
For the next day, Instagram was bombarding the app with advertisements for Affinity, Ultima, and other dog food brands . The most curious thing of all is that it was close to the profile of the dog: small breed and very basic needs. The rest of the days have been accompanied by related advertising, although in a considerably lower number.
Second case: "What do you prefer for your birthday, clothes or jewelry?"
Thursday November 14th arrives and the weekend is just around the corner. During the night of the same Thursday, I presented my mother with a couple of possibilities with the excuse of her birthday: some clothes or some gold earrings? . The answer, "well maybe I need some shoes . "
Hours later, and more specifically during Friday 15 and Saturday 16, Instagram begins to show advertising of shoes, sneakers, fashion and accessories in general . Everything was accentuated as we spent the afternoon in a shopping center in the city on Saturday morning. We can deduce, therefore, that Instagram used GPS to cross data and obtain an even more accurate profile.
Third case: "I'm thinking of getting a new guitar and pedalboard"
We come to the last case. Weekend and various conversations with friends and family. “I think I'm going to buy a new guitar. Maybe some pedal to play with the sound and so on ”. Although in this case , searches have been carried out over the phone with Google Chrome as the main browser , the last consultations go back several days, around 7 or 8.
The result is once again enlightening: advertising in the form of Stories and publications inserted in the feed . In this case, the number of promoted publications has been much higher than in the two previous cases. I have to assume that Instagram has obtained the data from the browser to know the search intentions. The most curious thing is that the advertising has not been activated until I have shared my concerns with other subjects . Probably because the algorithm is programmed to fire this way.
Can we confirm that Instagram watches our movements online and off? We refer to the tests so that you can draw your own conclusions. The only thing that the company itself recognizes is in its Data Policy sheet.
There it says that it reserves the right of access to the screen, the camera, the GPS, the incoming connections, the browser cookies and the activity in third-party applications . What we still cannot fully confirm is the use of the microphone as a measure to collect data and improve its labeling, although the tests make us suspect some strange behavior.
On a personal basis, and as an application programmer with several years of experience, I can affirm that it is technically possible . My bet is that Instagram could design an algorithm that is activated when the data collected through the microphone and the rest of the elements coincide with each other. In that case, they would use the philosophy that if we share our concerns with other people, the chances of buying a product related to those concerns increase .
And you? Have you had a similar experience recently? Leave us your own experience in the comments.