How I Caught the Instagram App Spying Red-Handed on My Wife

For the record, I’m largely off of social media at this point, and my wife, Debbie, has never had it at all. As close friends of mine know, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with social media for years, but finally reached a breaking point this past March 2019 and deleted my 10 year old Facebook account. It had tens of thousands of photos and check-ins, and was nearly 14 GB in size when I downloaded all of the data. I also deleted the Instagram account I started in 2014, which became the main place I posted to after I finally got fed up with Facebook in 2016. That was another 6 GB worth of social media data downloaded for my own safe-keeping, and then deleted online. All said and done, between those and a few other minor hobbyist type accounts I had for various things, I deleted well in excess of 20 GB worth of mainly personal and family related social media accounts, and I’ve yet to have any real regrets about deleting any of it.

I still remember the old joke about social media. Ask me what I think now.

“If you didn’t post it to social media, it didn’t happen.”

Steve in 2019: “Bullsh*t.”

If you really want to know why, you can dig through my ramblings on my What’s New page from the first half of 2019. Eventually I’ll write more about it all, but the pre-existing privacy issues that everybody paying attention has heard about were bad enough as they were, but then add in the totally biased politically motivated censorship and bans, treating all of their users like children, the corrupt foreign influence, attempted election meddling, and what basically amounts to fraud on a massive scale, and on and on and on ad nauseam, and I’d finally had enough.

It’s Tough To Delete It All When You’re a Cancer Advocate

I’m a testicular cancer survivor and a young adult cancer advocate. I’ve done some amazing things for our small little communities about rare cancers that strike young adults, so the few accounts I’ve held onto have been secondary accounts with virtually no personal information or family related photos posted, and for the sole purpose of keeping up with friends, and participating in a few cancer support groups and pages. If it weren’t for my ongoing cancer advocacy work, I’d probably have completely deleted everything. I rarely if ever make any new posts these days, or if I do they’re deleted within a few days, and almost no personal information or family photos ever goes onto these Big Tech social media platform anymore. I’ve even done large purges on my cancer pages and accounts, because I don’t want the Big Tech companies scraping old posts. All I really do is log in, check notifications, maybe scroll through the top few posts in my feed or check a group or two, and that’s it.

The Big Tech companies will still say that I count as a “daily user” on my non-deleted accounts at least, but even that would be grossly misleading to potential investors and advertisers, as my activity is a far cry from what it was a few years ago. My “screen time” per day is way down, and I don’t even use their apps. Although it’s a bit clunky, you can still browse through your social media accounts just fine through mobile web browsers, so that’s what I do and keep their snooping apps off of my phone.

Caught Red-handed!

Recently, I actually needed to install the Instagram app again to make a real post, a quick update and announcement of a new blog on my @yacancerbysteve account on Instagram. While you can post to Instagram from mobile web browsers, I wanted to make a multi-image post in a non-square format. If you can do that from a mobile web browser, I have no idea how, so just installed the Instagram app again to make it happen. After I made my post, I figured I’d just leave it installed. I missed the convenience and speed of the app, except that I almost immediately caught the Instagram app “spying” in a blatantly obvious way!

Straight off my phone with metadata that should still be intact - the gluten free cinnamon roll at Summer House Santa Monica is legit!

We went to brunch at a nice restaurant called Summer House Santa Monica on Sunday, which is a “California-y” place in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland. I took photos of our food because I’m still a foodie and that’s what foodies do, even if I don’t end up posting them anywhere, and I didn’t. It seems kinda pointless, but old habits die hard. We used our Lettuce Entertain You account to get points, which has never been linked to any of my social media accounts as far as I’m aware. Later in the day, Debbie mentioned going to “RPM Italian” in D.C. again, which is a really nice Italian restaurant that we love but hadn’t been to in awhile.

What do I see later that night in my Facebook news feed, other than a Lettuce Entertain You advertisement with RPM Italian mentioned first, out of all the restaurants that work with this. What on Earth??

Exhibit A

She had only verbally mentioned RPM Italian in my presence, and mind you these ads were seen on my secondary Facebook account where I’ve never “checked-in” at RPM Italian, nor posted any photos from there, as I had on my old deleted primary Facebook account. Scrolling to the left in the ad, it also showed other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, which included Summer House Santa Monica.

Totally creeped out.

How Did It Know?

To make it extremely clear, I didn’t post a thing on social media that day, and had never “been there” before on any of the social media accounts that I still have. So how did it know?

GPS Tracking?

At first, I thought that maybe the app was tracking my location, but we also went to Target and REI and a few other places, and didn’t get served any ads for these places just by going there. It’s not like I haven’t been to a zillion different places after having deleted most of my social media accounts and the apps from my phone, and have never seen such a "targeted” ad before, so GPS tracking just wasn’t adding up. I also always had these apps set to track my location only while using the app, which I wasn’t using at the time. Using the GPS constantly will also suck a ton of power from people’s phones, and my battery life has been pretty darned good since deleting all of those apps.

So why did I get an ad for Summer House, and not REI and Target, or anywhere else we go?

Follow the bits. What did I do at Summer House that I didn’t do at the other places?

I took pictures.

Camera Roll Scanning

I think it’s pretty obvious that the Instagram app was actually scanning photos in my camera roll, looking at the GPS data embedded into the photos by your phone, and then sending that data back to Facebook/Instagram’s ad system, even though I didn’t actually post any of these photos to either social media account! It’s pretty clear that’s what happened.

You know, if I actually make a post to social media about going to brunch someplace and tag the location, I’m okay with being served relevant ads about that as I’ve made that “pubic” to the social media advertising back end, even if posts are only set to show friends. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that I didn’t make a social media post at all, and yet the Instagram app was still pretty clearly scanning my photos, grabbing the locations that I’ve been to through the embedded GPS data in those photos, and still sending that information back to Facebook. That’s creepy.

Sorry, but that’s not okay, and is totally intrusive. Funny how there’s not an option to turn OFF scanning every photo on your phone even if you don’t post anything, and that’s where the creepiness comes into play. This is what the app apparently does, and you can’t opt out of it.

Sadly, this is the best assumption about what happened that I can make, and I consider this over the line. Big Tech social media apps shouldn’t be sniffing through my phone for metadata that was never posted to their platform, but there are far worse assumptions.

Was The Instagram App Audibly Eavesdropping?

At some point on Sunday, Debbie said “we should go to RPM Italian again,” and that’s it. We didn’t actually go there, and so I didn’t take any photos, there were no GPS “breadcrumbs”, and no photo metadata to scan. As I’m using what are basically “purged” social media accounts that never had much in the way of personal information posted ever, there was never a “check-in” history either, or if there ever was, the posts themselves were long since deleted.

So how the hell did Facebook know to serve me a Lettuce Entertain You ad showing RPM Italian first?

Was it actually eavesdropping on conversations? It’s hard to deny that it could have been as a possibility, and probably was in reality.

Related external articles:

Is Instagram Listening in on You? - Deidra Riggs
Instagram is listening to you - Medium
Instagram 'listening' to your conversations. Using microphone ...
Instagram CEO Says App Doesn't Listen to Your Conversations ...
NEW 8/19: Facebook Is Collecting User Audio, Paying Contractors To Transcribe It
NEW 8/19:
Facebook Paid Contractors to Transcribe Users’ Audio Chats

I did have microphone access turned on, but one would think that’s only for when you’re making a post or a video, and not when you’re just talking to your significant other. Then again, this is Big Tech that we’re talking about here, and they clearly don’t give a (bleep) about anybody’s privacy, as history has shown time and time again.

Say what you will, but I think it’s more likely than not that the Instagram app (and probably the Facebook app too) eavesdrops on your conversations, which is totally unacceptable to me. While I can’t prove it, others above have made the same exact observations, including some people that I follow on Instagram that have mentioned this in their posts or stories.

My 12 year-old daughter confirms that “everybody knows this at school”, as schoolmates of hers with social media reported that if they say something like “Chik-fil-A” enough times, they’ll suddenly see Chik-fil-A ads on their social media accounts!

#DeleteBigTech

This Never Happened Without the Apps Installed

In the months that I’ve had the Big Tech social media apps deleted from my phone, not once have I ever seen an ad on either platform that I truly felt was targeted at me in such in intrusive way that violated my privacy. I don’t feel like it was a coincidence that immediately after I installed the Instagram app to make one completely unrelated post, and with metadata stripped out of the photos, that I suddenly got an extremely intrusive and targeted ad.

And remember, the social media accounts that I’m using had previously been used as secondary accounts for the sole purpose of engagement with the cancer support community. I deleted my other big primary accounts that had tons of check-in data and photos from restaurants, including from RPM Italian. These are about as close to clean-slate accounts as one can get, as far as personal data goes that could be used for advertisers. Had this happened on my now deleted primary accounts that were loaded with photos and check-ins from all sorts of places, including from RPM Italian, it would have been tough to say that the Instagram app was “eavesdropping” when I’d already posted tons of photos from there.

All in all, I was totally creeped out and immediately deleted the app again.

Why My Privacy Matters

Both in the capacity of a cancer survivor and advocate, and as an individual, there’s plenty of things that I’ve discussed both on social media and off that is absolutely no one else’s business but my own, and whomever I happen to be speaking with. Period. Full stop.

I’m a young adult cancer advocate that’s helped to support thousands around the world through my openness about mental health struggles after cancer such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, and even sexual matters. When I’m talking to fellow cancer fighters or others about such topics, it’s nobody else’s goddamned business period. In the process of being so open with others, I’ve also had followers open up to me about deeply personal and private things that have happened in their lives, that even their closest friends or family members might not know about. In addition to cancer survivors, I can also count victims of rape, abuse, and sexual assault among my followers, those that have either contemplated or attempted suicide, in addition to a survivor of attempted murder, which resulted in a conviction.

This is the level of privacy and confidence that I’ve operated at in the past, and yet Big Tech is telling all of us that you have “zero expectations for privacy” on their platforms, and that they’ll scan your direct messages, scan the metadata out of your photos that you haven’t even posted, and apparently listen in on your conversations when you’re not even using their app, even if they deny it!

Facebook Under Oath: You Have No Expectation of Privacy

They’re really not kidding, are they. When this is the level that I operate at, how can I in good conscience continue to use Big Tech social media platforms to help support people through deeply personal and private situations when Big Tech has openly stated that there’s zero expectation for privacy on their platforms, and that they’re literally sniffing through everything that they can, even when you’re not using their apps? Even if it wouldn’t matter to me, I have followers that are in very vulnerable places in life that I feel a duty to protect from such exploitation, even if they’re unaware of just how badly their own privacy is being violated.

BOMBSHELLS:
Facebook Is Collecting User Audio, Paying Contractors To Transcribe It
Facebook Paid Contractors to Transcribe Users’ Audio Chats

Funny that the day I post this blog, yet more bombshell revelations come to light about Facebook recording and transcribing user audio! On one hand, they almost always deny they’re eavesdropping, but then they’re caught not just eavesdropping but paying hundreds of contractors to transcribe everything? What the actual f*ck?? This is potentially a violation of Federal wiretap laws!

Big Tech has practically become a non-starter for me due to all of the privacy concerns alone, and then it just keeps going and going and never ends. GTFO!!

Big Tech Can Get Bent

I stumbled across this video of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak talking about these very issues back in July 2019 and encouraging people to “get off Facebook”, but never thought I’d experience such a blatantly obvious and intrusive example of this. I agree with Wozniak. Users ought to be able to pay a fee in order to opt out all of the data snooping and eavesdropping in order to have a more private and secure social media experience, but there isn’t one. Our only choice is to submit to wholly intrusive invasions of our privacy and to apparently allow eavesdropping on our conversations, so my choice has been to largely delete and/or wind down the vast majority of my social media accounts, along with all of the apps off of my phone.

“My recommendation to most people, is you should figure out a way to get off Facebook.” - Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-Founder

If you don’t want Big Tech possibly tracking you wherever you go, scanning photos that you’ve taken on your phone but haven’t actually posted on social media, and more likely than not actually eavesdropping on your conversations, you need to immediately delete these apps from your phones. Better yet, just delete your accounts and move on from social media. And those of you with Amazon or Google “smart” home devices? You’re nuts and should immediately bin them. If anybody ever gifts me one of these things, that’s exactly where it would go.


What’s Next?

I honestly don’t know. Most people don’t have their own website like I do, but this is what I’m using to share personal and cancer advocacy content for now. The only thing the social media companies get are links to my website, but none of the actual content. Followers of mine can reach out to me for support via either direct end-to-end encrypted Telegram chat that’s actually secure, or via my secure and paid ProtonMail account, both of which are free from Silicon Valley’s eavesdropping.

Related: Google Will Keep Reading Your Emails, Just Not for Ads

Oh yeah, did you know that Google reads all of your emails? So I’m winding down my Gmail accounts also. Nothing is for “free”, but little did we know just how much we’re being exploited and giving away.

It’s actually quite sad that when people reach out to me on social media looking for support, and I have to ask them to switch to a more secure form of communication because literally everything is being “watched” and monitored. Nothing relating to our privacy is sacred when it comes to Big Tech. They’ve totally lost my confidence in far more ways than just privacy, and I’m moving on.

It’s over.

Alt-Tech PLatforms?

To be completely honest, I’m pretty burned out from any social media right about now after dumping 10 years into my Facebook account only to feel so betrayed and deleting it all, but there’s some new and interesting alternative social media platforms out there that have been referred to as “alt-tech” that are worth looking into.

Parler?

Parler currently has a bit more momentum, but it just seems like a “Red Team Twitter” echo chamber, as some have described it, and in all likelihood has the same back-end data collection garbage and privacy intrusions as any of the other Big Tech platforms. I like my privacy, and the world doesn’t need more echo chambers. I’ve lost interest in Parler as a result, despite having nearly a thousand followers on it. That, and the service just seems to run like crap whether using the app or a mobile web browser. These apps spy on all of us, so how well a platform or service runs without an app and through a mobile web browser matters quite a bit for me, and Parler doesn’t run well that way either. All in all, I’m just not feeling Parler, don’t feel like it has much of a future being the same closed and proprietary type of system as all the other Big Techs, and it’s already nearly been kicked off of the Apple app store. What will make or break Parler, or any of these platforms, is if there’s some big name defections from the other Big Tech social media platforms to help drive traffic and user growth. So I guess we’re all on the fence here.

Should We All Get on Gab?

Image via @GetOnGab on Twitter

Then there’s Gab, the supposedly “Nazi Twitter” (lol). Whenever the media or the Twitter blue check brigade all call something or someone they don’t like a “Nazi”, like Gab.com, I of course follow them to see what they’re all about (the Streisand effect is real), and I’ve yet to ever come across a real “Nazi”. I’m sure they’re out there, but, umm, just don’t follow them? Nobody is forcing you to follow somebody you don’t like. There’s maybe around 2 or 3 actual Nazis in the U.S., and let’s face it, the left has been calling everybody that disagrees with them Nazis and “white nationalists” for the past few years now. The left and their labels have become absolutely insane and meaningless, and it’s not as if there hasn’t been metric heaping tons of pure hatred and bigotry and the inciting of violence coming from the left and the Big Tech platforms themselves, which strangely seems to be left unmoderated so long as the hatred flows in the approved directions. And let’s face it, I don’t give a f*** anyways!

Is it really too much to ask for a social media platform that either doesn’t censor at all (Gab does remove explicit threats of violence), or if it does, it actually follows its own Terms of Service, and moderates in a fair and objective manner as opposed to rampantly biased moderation and making up rules as they go? And is it really too much to ask for social media to not be so intrusive in the name of data collection and “revenue” that they’re actually eavesdropping on our private conversations looking for keywords? What the actual f***? Facebook is worth over a hundred billion dollars, and this is the crap we get? What a freaking joke! Why should I continue to support this garbage by continuing to post content to it? I’m not the type of person that will, and so I won’t.

People who don’t like what’s going on on the Big Tech social media platforms, yet remain on them, are a part of the problem. I refuse to empower these companies.

Back to Gab. So I’ve been following Gab’s CEO, Andrew Torba, on Twitter and on Gab since the start of the year. His Twitter rants and antagonizing of Silicon Valley, and especially his resiliency and sheer determination in the face of so many roadblocks, have been both highly entertaining and also inspiring. And I have to say that I believe in what he’s doing. Torba is creating a de-centralized, open source, social media platform that can’t be censored and that values user privacy. He’s trying to return the Internet and social media back to what it used to be, and not the massive Big Brother surveillance state apparatus that it’s become today. Being able to eventually spin up my own Gab server with my own rules if I want is highly appealing as well, which is not an option at all on Parler, or any of the other closed and proprietary systems. Imagine being able to spin up your own private “Facebook” server just for you, your friends and your family, or whomever you want, and with your own rules? That’s what Gab is offering, and it’s actually already happened. A new feminist social platform called Spinster, based off of the open-source Gab code (which itself is based on Mastodon, all of which are part of something larger called the “Fediverse"), just launched as of this writing. Umm, do feminists tend to be right-wingers? I don’t think so. More power to them! Their own social platform, on their own server, and with their own rules. What Gab is offering is for everybody.

Related: VICE Attempts To Smear Gab, But Is Forced To Admit That Gab Is Winning

I find it all highly appealing, and that a lot of the labels and smears about Gab are lacking substance, completely unfounded, and just the social media giants trying to protect their turf and maintain control of their often completely false narratives. While Gab’s official app has been pulled from both Google and Apple app stores for nonsensical reasons that you’ll probably be hearing about eventually in anti-trust investigations, you can still access the platform on numerous open-source apps that are still available, but I don’t even bother. The Gab code also runs cleanly enough that accessing it through a mobile web-browser or as a PWA (progressive web app) is nearly as fast and as smooth as a real app. These guys obviously know what they’re doing, and I’m a fan.

It’s the Principles, Stupid

I refuse to put even a single bit of “my” content on any of these other Big Tech social media platforms anymore, when they can just delete me or lock me out of my account if I dare to say the wrong words or commit Silicon Valley “wrongthink”. It’s all so insulting, demeaning, and infantilizing. They think they’re everybody’s God or overbearing “helicopter” parents who must be obeyed, when they’re not. We’re all adults, and daring to dictate to me the opinions I’m allowed to have or not have about certain people that Silicon Valley doesn’t like is just another nail in an already closed coffin for Big Tech. I don’t even post much political content, and try to stay as far away from it as possible. It’s the principles that matter, and Silicon Valley principles are totally un-American.

This is a Gab propaganda advert, but it’s highly effective and resonates with me because yes, WE’RE TIRED OF BEING TREATED LIKE CHILDREN!

The last I checked, I have a 1st Amendment right to speak freely and to associate with whomever I please, but clearly Silicon Valley doesn’t believe in this. As Torba has said recently in a Washington Examiner article, users, like myself, “are getting fed up with being treated like children by Silicon Valley giants.” Damn straight.

This isn’t an advertisement for Gab - I’m just stating my personal thoughts and opinions about where I’m going and what the future is, and the future is Gab, in my opinion. Unlike all the other platforms, this is something that I could see myself putting some time and effort into if it takes off. Gab just crossed a million users. It could happen, and I think that’s why Silicon Valley is so afraid of them and banning them to kingdom come, while committing blatant anti-trust fraud in the process. It’s going to be an interesting few years seeing how all of this plays out. We’re all in the middle of seeing history being made.


Follow Me on Gab, If You Want

I really haven’t had much if any time for social media lately, but if you happen to see this article and appreciate this content, give me a follow on Gab at @K2xxSteve, and maybe I’ll actually start posting some content over there.

You can follow me on Gab if you want:  https://www.gab.com/K2xxSteve

You can follow me on Gab if you want: https://www.gab.com/K2xxSteve

PS: I’m an American-born Caucasian, and my wife is a first generation Taiwanese-American woman. We have a blended family, and live in an international neighborhood with friends from all over the world. She immigrated to the U.S. legally and gained citizenship long before we ever met, grew up poor as dirt in New York and then in Pennsylvania, but studied her ass off, got into medical school and worked her ass off, and is a successful doctor today whom I couldn’t be more proud of. So if anybody really wants to say that I’m a “Nazi” for signing up on Gab, I’m just going to laugh my ass off. It’s sad that I even have to say anything like this at all, but this is the climate that we live in today. People will think and say the most ridiculous things, and I don’t GAF. I don’t need anyone else’s approval to try a new social media platform besides my own.

For me, signing up on Gab is about truly free speech and not having every word I type put through nonsensical Silicon Valley wrongthink filters, and about not having massive intrusions on my privacy, and that’s it. I’ve already deleted most of my social media accounts and content, so I’m more than happy to start over elsewhere and try something new. Gab is it for me.

I’m the first person to post about #TesticularCancer and #YoungAdultCancer on both Parler and Gab. Advocacy for testicular cancer and young adult cancer fighters and survivors, and sharing my volumes of writing on the topic, is the only real reason I’ve maintained a social media presence at all. That’s my main mission on these social platforms, so we’ll see what happens.

Peace out.