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What Does Instagram Know About Me?

Last edited: June 21, 2019
Reading time: 7 minutes, 9 seconds

Instagram rapidly shot to popularity soon after its initial release on iOS in 2010. With as many as 500 million daily active users, the site continues to grow as the go-to site for photo editing and sharing. With that many active users, the appeal to advertisers is obvious. The platform is becoming a point of focus for marketers building brands online. To serve up better advertisements, Instagram collects personal data on users. The amount of data Instagram has about you might well surprise you. 

Does It Feel Like Someone is Watching You?

Do you ever get that feeling in a crowd of people that someone is watching you? Every time you look around you catch someone just as they look away. Of course, that could be a coincidence. And they might think you are watching them based on how often you look over to see if they are watching you. But when the coincidences happen too often, you might be right to be suspicious.

This happens so regularly on apps like Instagram, you might not even notice it anymore. You go online searching for a new pair of headphones. Later when you open Instagram, there’s an advertisement for the very headphones you were looking at earlier. Or you click on an ad in Instagram, only to have an ad from the same company or for a similar product pop up on Facebook later. It’s like someone is watching you, but you can’t see them.

In fact, Instagram does just this. Instagram makes money by selling targeted advertisements. And it’s not just a little money. According to Statista, Instagram will bring in over $6 billion in ad revenue in 2018. Advertisers only shell out that kind of money if they are seeing results. Instagram can generate that much income based on how much they know about you. So, what does Instagram know about you? The answer may shock you.

Instagram Is Comparing Notes About You

Remember when the new kid in school showed up? You and your friends would get together to compare notes about what each other knew about them. Instagram does the same thing. Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger all share information about you with each other. Every hashtag on Instagram is compared with likes on Facebook. These are compared with messages you send through Messenger. Together they build a detailed profile of who you are. 

Instagram also collects information from their advertising partners and other app developers. Facebook offers the option to log in to other sites through their app. This is a convenient way of avoiding coming up with a new password to remember. It also gives Facebook and Instagram access to information about you through that site. So, when you visit that site, Instagram is watching you. Click on a link, and Instagram knows. Use this for apps and Instagram notices how frequently you use the app, and how long you stay on.

Every Move You Make

Like the stalker that always seems to know where you are, Instagram knows your location. Even if you adjust your privacy options to limit your location data, Instagram is paying attention to where you are. Instagram can pinpoint your location through nearby Bluetooth emitters, Wi-Fi access points, or GPS location. The app can even use what is visible through your camera or in the background of photos. This isn’t the paranoid ramblings of some guy in a tin-foil hat. Instagram’s data policy is clear and available to anyone who wants to take the trouble to actually read it.

 Instagram knows your mobile carrier, your phone number, and your IP address. This information can be used to know your location with reasonable accuracy. Instagram keeps track of that information and comparing it to a map program. By doing so, Instagram can know where you live, where you work, your favorite places to shop, where your kids go to school, and more. 

Visit an outdoors equipment shop and Instagram knows you may be looking to take a camping trip soon. You can expect a relevant ad soon. Visit a new medical specialist and advertisers are alerted to your medical condition. Take your dog to the vet, and Instagram may show ads for products of interest to pet owners.

Every Word You Say

To be fair, Facebook forcefully denies using your device’s microphone to listen to your conversations. But there are many credible reports, well documented reports, from people who suggest otherwise. Many report having a conversation about a product, and then seeing an ad show up for the product soon after. Yes, these reports may be a coincidence. Perhaps they did a search for the product online earlier and forgot about it. If these reports are not accurate, the conclusion may be even more disturbing. It would imply Instagram knew from your profile alone exactly when you would be interested in a product.

What Instagram Can Piece Together from Your Data

Visiting a store, whether online or in person, can provide Instagram with valuable insight. The types of products you may be interested in buying, and when helps to better target ads. Instagram pulls together all their considerable information on you and creates a complete picture of who you are. It is this complete picture that allows Instagram to make billions of advertising dollars.

By keeping track of websites you visit, Instagram builds on your profile. They get this information either by clicking on a link in Instagram or by visiting a website that partners with Facebook and Instagram. Visit and Instagram adds to their profile of your political leanings. Visit a site on meditation and Instagram adds another piece of the puzzle to your religious beliefs. Search for sports scores for a team and your interests are updated.

Instagram bases your profile on the information available to them as you use their service. They know your clothing preferences, your gender, age, taste in food, and likely your sexual preferences. Instagram probably knows things about you that your closest friends would be surprised to learn.

Well-known YouTuber Safiya Nygaard tried buying items Instagram recommended to her to find out how the algorithms work. It is interesting to see how Instagram interprets her activity on their platform.

Sharing Is Caring

Instagram doesn’t keep all your information to itself. They aggregates your information with millions of other users, and sells it to third-parties. This can be advertisers, researchers, vendors, law enforcement, and more. This information doesn’t personally identify you by default. But users can give Instagram permission to share personal information with third parties. If you ever clicked “agree” to something you didn’t read very well, you may be allowing Instagram to share your personal information with third-parties. Even if you revoke that permission later, your data is already out there.

While many of those who receive shared information from Instagram have reasonable privacy policies, many do not. They may in turn share your information with others. Third-parties that hold your information may not always have the highest security as well. While Instagram must maintain strict data security or risk public backlash, a company you have never heard of faces much less risk if their security exposes your information.

Your Privacy is Worth Guarding

There is nothing evil about Instagram using the information they gather on you to make sure the ads you see are for products you want to buy. In fact, many people appreciate the convenience of targeted ads. However, most people are quite disturbed to learn how much information apps like Instagram can collect on users. 

While adjusting your privacy settings can restrict the data Instagram gathers on you, they will still have more than enough to build a comprehensive profile. One easy way to make your online experience with Instagram and other apps more anonymous is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN puts distance between you and the websites and apps you use so companies are not able to collect as much personal data. This helps protect your privacy and can provide other useful benefits such as unblocking restricted content online.

A VPN can also help you avoid restriction on internet access at work. There are many great VPN services out there that are incredibly easy to set up and use on a regular basis. If privacy is important to you, why not look at your options to safeguard your information online

Whatever you end up doing, it is important to educate yourself on the ways of these platforms you use. This way you won’t be surprised if you get personalized ads.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.

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