For years, Instagram users have been wondering if the app uses your phone’s microphone to listen to private conversations. After all, just about everyone who regularly uses Instagram has a story about a targeted ad showing up for something they spoke openly about not long before.
Facebook has long denied that it listens to its users, while investigations from people outside the company have failed to indisputably prove it. Still, Instagram head Adam Mosseri was asked about it in a rare TV interview on CBS This Morning, which aired Tuesday.
As you could expect, Mosseri insisted Instagram is not listening to you. The real answer, however, might not be all that comforting.
Mosseri said the two explanations for this phenomenon are “dumb luck” or people are speaking out loud about things they saw online, perhaps even subconsciously.
“So maybe you’re really into food and restaurants. You saw a restaurant on Facebook or Instagram and you really like the thing,” Mosseri said. “It’s top of mind, maybe it’s subconscious and then it bubbles up later. I think this kind of thing happens often in a way that’s really subtle.”
While that sounds perfectly reasonable based on what we know about digital ad algorithms, it doesn’t make it that much less creepy. Instagram isn’t listening to you, it just knows you saw things you might not even remember seeing online.
Sadly, that might still be more believable than the idea that Instagram is actively listening to your conversations. Former Facebook engineer Antonio Garcia Martinez wrote a piece for WIRED back in 2017 explaining how that would be logistically impossible. In short, the data requirements for Facebook or Instagram to listen to user conversations would be astronomical.
Instead, Facebook just harvests mildly unnerving data on your interests, which the app helpfully lets you see at any time.