Gayle King Asks Instagram Chief If the App Is Listening to Your Conversations to Pick Ads

Jason Duaine Hahn

With privacy becoming an increasing concern for smartphone users, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri was pressed about whether the app can eavesdrop on users’ personal conversations using the device’s microphone to target their advertisements.

In an appearance on CBS This Morning, 36-year-old Mosseri was asked by Gayle King about how the company tailors its ads for users, and whether the app has the capability to pick up on keywords from their conversations to later show them ads related to what was discussed.

“Can you help me understand how I can be having a private conversation with someone about something I’m interested in seeing or buying… and an advertisement for that will pop up on my Instagram feed?” King asked Mosseri about the app, which is owned by Facebook. “I haven’t searched for it, I haven’t talked to anybody about it. I swear I think you guys are listening. I know you’re gonna say you’re not.”

Mosseri dismissed the notion that the app was listening to users’ communications or scanning their personal messages in their inbox. Instead, he explained that if an ad appears on a feed for something a user recently discussed, it’s simply “dumb luck.”

“There are two ways that can happen. One is dumb luck, which can happen,” Mosseri told King. “The second is you might be talking about something because it’s top of mind because you’ve been interacting with that type of content more recently.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appears before Congress | JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

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He continued: “So maybe you’re really into food and restaurants. You saw a restaurant on Facebook or Instagram and you really like the thing. 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 privacy has become an increasing concern in the social media age, the issue made headlines when Facebook was involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018, which revealed the company let third-party companies retrieve user data to target voters in the 2016 presidential election.

Mosseri said the company stands by its claim that its app does not listen to conversations or scan messages.

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“But 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,” Mosseri told CBS. “But I recognize you’re not going to really believe me.”