No, Instagram isn't listening to you. It can get all the info it needs without a microphone

Valentin Wolf/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Do you ever get the sense that Instagram knows you a little too well? Sponsored posts that seem almost too targeted have users wondering if the app is using the microphone on their phones to listen to conversations for advertising purposes. In an interview with CBS This Morning, CEO Adam Mosseri assured users that Instagram isn't listening to or spying on them. "We don't look at your messages, we don't listen in on your microphone, doing so would be super problematic for a lot of different reasons," he said. "But I recognize you're not gonna really believe me."

Approaching Instagram and any app that profits primarily off of advertising with skepticism is generally a good idea, but you can probably believe Mosseri in this instance. While Instagram does ask for access to your microphone, it probably isn't using it to listen for mentions of products and services with the intention of serving you ads — not necessarily because it's morally wrong to do (and likely illegal unless explicitly in the app's terms of use), but because it would be a massive challenge on a technical level.

The same "always listening" accusation has been levied against Instagram's parent company Facebook, and has been the subject of a number of investigations into the feasibility of such an invasive practice. Writing for Wired in 2017, former Facebook engineer Antonio Garcia Martinez noted that listening to people all day would require Facebook to process "about 33 times more data daily" than it currently does. It would need to process and produce transcripts for every recording that could be used to pull out topics and keywords that could be used for advertising, and as it turns out most of us don't spend our day talking about things we want to buy. There would be a lot of noise that wouldn't be usable.

Even if Facebook took a page from Amazon and Google's always-listening smart speakers and made it so the Facebook or Instagram apps only start listening when certain trigger words were said, getting that to happen on hundreds of millions of phones — all with different specs and capabilities — would be a daunting programming task. Pulling it off without it being noticed at some point would be nearly impossible, according to Martinez, as just having the apps listen while running in the background would devour a phone's CPU and battery.

The fact of the matter is Instagram and Facebook don't need to listen to you to know what you want. In fact, it'd almost be better if the company's hyper-accurate advertisements were the result of listening into our conversations. That's a far simpler answer than the reality, which is that Facebook just has a massive amount of information about you. If you've logged onto Facebook on a device, it knows when you are using it. It can follow you around the web with the Facebook Pixel, a tiny little tracker that is tucked away in the code of millions of websites. Even if you aren't logged into your Facebook account, the company knows where you've been. The Pixel records browser and device information as well as IP address, which can then be paired with the same information the company already has from its users and determine who it is.

If that isn't enough information, Facebook also supplements its own collection of data by purchasing information from data brokers. You'd be surprised how much of your information is just out there to buy. Things like your income, marital status, legal history, even things like if you're pregnant or trying to lose weight — all collected by the likes of credit reporting agencies and other firms and sold for pennies per profile. All of that can be further expanded on by purchasing information from companies that operate loyalty programs. That can give Facebook access to your purchases offline and deepen its understanding of your purchasing tendencies.

Take all of that, combine it with the massive amount of information that Facebook and Instagram can glean from your activity on their platforms, and you're left with a pretty complete picture of a person — or at the very least the things they may be interested in spending money on. Listening through your microphone would be extremely creepy, but it would also be a convenient explanation of how Facebook and Instagram have such complete profiles of us. The truth — that these companies have enough information about us, collected from multiple sources, to make the idea of them listening to our every word feel feasible — is somehow even creepier.