Why is everyone still giving Instagram a free pass?


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Instagram recently turned 10. Throughout the years, the platform has transformed from an app for photography enthusiasts into a social media juggernaut. However, one of the biggest milestones in its history is undoubtedly its acquisition by Facebook. Although many of the incremental changes made by the new owner weren’t always easy to spot, today’s Instagram is undeniably a Facebook product.

Yet, Instagram hasn’t been put under nearly as much scrutiny as its parent company. Facebook has lost the trust of many consumers thanks to endless data breaches and privacy scandals. Instagram, on the other hand, has seen its userbase grow to over one billion monthly users in the last couple of years, despite Facebook’s ever-worsening reputation. But are the two platforms really that different, and is it time to stop giving Instagram a free pass?

Instagram and Facebook’s early history

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The photo-sharing app was acquired by Facebook relatively early in its history. Mark Zuckerberg’s company bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012 when the burgeoning platform had 80 million users and no revenue to speak of. Nevertheless, this move was a calculated one. Facebook wanted to eat up any serious competition it could encounter along its way to the top.

Even if you used Instagram at the time, you might not have known about the acquisition. The two platforms were not nearly as intertwined as they are today. There were some cross-platform features, but Instagram was relatively independent of Facebook in those early years.

Related: The best apps like Instagram for Android

If rumors are to be believed, this is because Instagram founders Systrom and Krieger made few compromises with their vision for the platform. As time went on, however, they were forced to agree to more and more changes, succumbing to pressures from Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg himself. When the two parties could no longer reconcile, Systrom and Krieger ultimately left Instagram in 2018. Their absence has been felt in many of the changes made to the platform since.

Two platforms, one philosophy: collect data

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Today, Instagram and Facebook are more alike than ever. You just have to look at the recent integration of Messenger in Instagram to see how blurred the lines between the two have become. This is part of Facebook’s larger effort to keep users inside its ecosystem, while its privacy problems remain unaddressed.

Instagram might not have found itself in hot water as many times as its parent company, but that hardly makes it a paragon of privacy. In fact, its data practices today are much closer to those of Facebook than many might realize. Recently, the company came under fire for allegedly collecting facial recognition data without consent. The lawsuit leveled against Instagram claims that included the facial data of non-users whose pictures were uploaded to the platform. Instagram claims it does not use facial recognition, but it’s hard to trust what the company says with Facebook’s past violations in mind.

Related: How to tweak your Instagram privacy settings

Facebook was among the first to deploy facial recognition for tagging selfies, making users opt-out rather than opt-in. The FTC called this practice “deceptive” when it sued Facebook in 2012. The company was subsequently forced to pay a record-breaking $5 billion settlement for that and other privacy violations. With that in mind, it’s hard to trust any privacy claims coming from a Facebook-owned company.

Instagram’s privacy policy

But you don’t even have to look at alleged cases to be worried about Instagram’s privacy practices. You only have to sit down and read its Data Policy and Terms of Use. The social network collects vast amounts of data on your activity, including all actions you take on the platform as well as, “the time, frequency and duration of your activities.” Financial information and shipping details (your address) are collected any time you make a transaction on any of Facebook’s products. Device attributes and operations are harvested too, including unique identifiers, device IDs, mouse movement, and, “Bluetooth signals, and information about nearby Wi-Fi access points, beacons, and cell towers,” to name a few.

Cell tower and Wi-Fi information are particularly worrying since the social network can likely discern your approximate location even when you haven’t granted it location permissions on your phone.

Instagram receives and shares your data with third parties.

The collected information is used for running the service and for ad-targeting, but Instagram can also share some of the provided data with researchers and law enforcement. The company claims none of the information shared with advertisers is identifiable, but as we have seen in previous cases, with enough data points, especially location data, individuals are extremely easy to identify.

If that doesn’t faze you, Instagram’s Terms of Use should. The company states that it does not have ownership of the content you upload, but it retains “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content.”

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Furthermore, Instagram receives data about your activity on third-party apps and websites that use Facebook’s Business Tools, such as the Like button or Facebook Login. With so much information, it’s no wonder algorithms can make scarily accurate advertising predictions. Worse yet, the data could be used to make the social media experience more addictive than ever.

Why are we still giving Instagram a free pass?

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So, why has Instagram managed to avoid being put under the privacy microscope for so long? Its demographics tend to skew younger than those of Facebook, which should hopefully mean that its users are more tech-literate and privacy-conscious.

Perhaps Instagram has managed to stay under the radar because it’s a much less outwardly toxic platform compared to its parent company. It has received its fair share of criticism for promoting unrealistic beauty standards and other issues, but privacy has been on the backburner. Instagram managed to skirt by unnoticed when Facebook was plagued by major scandals like Cambridge Analytica.

Read next: How to delete your Instagram account

Nevertheless, it is a platform we all need to keep a close eye on. Instagram is an integral part of the Facebook family, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. If privacy concerns you, it’s time to ask if using any Facebook-owned product is really worth it.

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