Some weeks ago, I saw an ad (sponsored post) on Instagram that surprised me. It was about a product I never googled, shared, liked, or talked about on any social network even in direct messages. I had a bad intuition: the only time this product came up was in a random chat with a couple of friends in a cafe. And the only way for Instagram to know about this was to listen to my real life conversations with the microphone.

Last week, I did an experiment to confirm this and the result is just as scary as you can imagine.

UPDATE: after reading the post, check the Part 2 here.

Context

Experiment

At some point I was talking with my cousin (in spanish) about a product I would like to buy: a micro projector connected in Bluetooth to share videos on a wall from my phone. I know that I never googled it, shared some ideas about it, or wrote it on any digital platform. It was a total random discussion. I remember saying stuff like:

It could be amazing to share some videos of our hike to the ones who didn’t come on a wall.

And my cousin replied saying that such products exist and we should try one.

That was a five minutes talk. Then we talked about other topics. It was a 6h hike and many conversations happened. But the one about the micro-projector was the only one referring to a specific product.

Result

Remember the context: 2300m with partial 3G in the mountains, low battery mode, and many discussions with five people, some in french and other ones in spanish.

Please Instagram, explain to me how you’re doing this. I’m a developer, I know how iOS and networks work, and I’m still very curious about the technology you’re using.

Conclusion

My first obvious conclusion is that Instagram is taping you when the app is in the background. The audio stream is translated to text on the phone (offline), and some patterns are extracted (offline). The final payload is probably smaller than the audio stream and can be sent by 3G. I was switching between french and spanish all day long. That means they have a lot of internal libraries to detect languages and do this audio processing. Maybe that’s why the Instagram app is 77 mo?

During the hike I remember trying to call someone on WhatsApp and the audio quality was so bad that I had to switch to text. I mention this because at this point the Instagram app couldn’t send a “raw” audio stream to a server.

Or: the audio is stored locally in chunks and then synchronised in the background to a server when the network is better (3h after the hike).

In any of the two conclusions: the microphone is used to record your environment. Today I’m 100% sure about this.

It’s honestly f***ed up.

For the moment, just turn off the microphone access in your settings and turn it on only when necessary.

UPDATE: after reading the post, check the Part 2 here.

Bisou.

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The New Dope: the Book.

Senior Developer • Founder of the World Dunk Association • wda.do • Author of The New Dope • the-new-dope.com

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