It's easy to believe that Instagram spies on you, especially given the amount of personal information the app requests and users give permissions for. And doubly so because it's owned by Facebook, a company not known for its privacy rights.
But is that paranoia talking? Does Instagram actually spy on you? Can Instagram read your messages, for instance? Here's why you might be concerned that the app's reach is greater than it initially seemed when you installed it.
Does Instagram Spy on You?
Let's get this out the way: yes, Instagram knows a lot about you. Facebook as a company certainly does because the apps it owns (including messaging apps, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger) share data between themselves.
Even if you're not on Facebook itself, you have a shadow profile, i.e. data linked to you based on other services you use that have Facebook integrated in some way.
Remember the adage: if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. Facebook gives you these services for free, but there's always a price to pay and that price is personal information. Data can be sold on and used for advertising.
Many users aren't worried by this: they hand over an email address, date of birth, and more Personally Identifiable Information (PII). We're used to it. But Instagram can also go further and sells what it collects.
In fact, a 2021 pCloud study found that Instagram was the "most invasive app", selling on an astonishing 79 percent of users' data to third parties. It tops even Facebook, which sells on 57 percent of collected information. (Both share 86 percent of data within the corporation, however.)
Does Instagram Track You?
So how does Instagram know so much about you? That is, aside from all the permissions you give it and details you submit when signing up. It comes down to tracking—and not just your location.
pCloud found that Instagram tracks and sells on your browser and search history, your location, usage data, identifiers, and obviously content submitted to the platform.
The initial red flag should be raised when users first see "Last Online" in their Direct Messages (DMs), indicating that habits are traceable and shareable. You can, fortunately, turn that off (go to Settings by clicking on the vertical ellipsis, then Privacy > Activity Status) so followers can't see when you're active.
Nonetheless, it proves that these logs are recorded and that there's a hidden layer of data to everything, including the photos you upload. These contain EXIF data, like the date and time the picture was taken, and using what device.
It can also track who you know, gaining access to your contacts list to link you up with friends similarly using Instagram.
Does Instagram Access Your Texts?
If Instagram can access details stored outside its own platform, i.e. contacts, camera, and photos, then you're right to be concerned about whether it can also read your messages or even call history.
It seems unlikely because safeguards are put in place.
Apple users are especially well protected, their apps working in isolated sandboxes that keep interactions between services minimal or non-existent. This depends on permissions and is why your iPhone will ask for you to give apps access to your camera, mic, or anything else before proceeding.
Plus, iMessages are encrypted, so even if they were intercepted, they'd be unreadable without the proper decryption key.
But this might be different for Android users. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook attested:
"Call and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android. This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook. People have to expressly agree to use this feature."
That controversy was addressed squarely at Facebook itself, but it could be a wider issue. Certainly there have been reports of users downloading all the data Facebook's collected and finding call and text logs.
It's important to note here that accessing texts and reading them are two different things. Instagram doesn't read your texts. As mentioned, iMessages are encrypted anyway and beyond that, Facebook assures users that "This feature does not collect the content of your calls or text messages."
What could be collected is metadata only, not what you actually write or talk about.
Facebook maintains that this is an opt-in service, that any data is secured, and it isn't sold on to third parties.
Does Instagram Read Your DMs?
What about Direct Messages sent within the app? You can often see when the recipient has read a DM (if neither of you has deactivated this function), but can Instagram itself read your messages?
Once again, metadata is collected—Instagram can see when DMs are sent, at what frequency, and when you're active. That comes part and parcel of using the app. Can the app read what you write?
Chat isn't yet encrypted on Instagram, but there's talk of integration with WhatsApp, another service provided by Facebook which does encrypt messages. Nonetheless, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri addressed these concerns:
"We don't look at your messages, we don't listen in on your microphone, [because] doing so would be super problematic for a lot of different reasons. But I recognize you're not gonna really believe me."
Similarly, in a post talking about hate speech, Instagram reaffirmed that "DMs are for private conversations, [so] we don't use technology to proactively detect content like hate speech or bullying the same way we do in other places."
It appears that Instagram doesn't read your DMs. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have the capacity to. Instagram's Data Policy features a couple of worrying clauses:
"We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our Products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content and message or communicate with others.
"We also receive and analyse content, communications and information that other people provide when they use our Products. This can include information about you, such as when others share or comment on a photo of you, send a message to you or upload, sync or import your contact information."
It's a big gray area.
Of course, other people can still share your messages through copying, screenshotting, and more, so you always need to stay vigilant.
Is Instagram Safe to Use?
For now, at least, it seems that Instagram can access metadata shared within the service and any apps you connect it to. But they can't (in some cases) or don't collect actual content within messages.
It's undoubtedly an invasive app, but it's down to individuals to conclude whether the service is worth that trade-off.