This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
A few days ago, my girlfriend and I saw an Instagram ad that felt eerily familiar. The image was a bedroom featuring a white designer cabinet, a bed with yellow and white-striped sheets and soft furnishings in shades of beige and light brown. Just like our bedroom.
We were paralysed for a few minutes. I had never come across ad content that hit so close to home before. Was it possible that Instagram was somehow spying on our room?
The ad for Bonsoirs’ “Club Holiday” Campaign. Bonsoirs is a French linen company.
There has been plenty of speculation in recent years about whether apps can listen to us or watch us. But there are lots of sensible reasons why an ad for something you’ve recently talked about might pop up on your phone. It’s possible you’d already seen it and never noticed, or maybe it’s related to something that you or the people you share your wifi with have searched for online.
In the first scenario, your mind is playing tricks on you. The brain works by creating associations, and notices first what it already knows. Similarly, if you’re looking to buy a Mazda, you suddenly feel like you only see Mazdas on the road.
The second scenario is basically how platforms like Instagram make money. They collect a large amount of data, including your online searches, your wifi and your location. By combining these, they can offer highly-targeted ads. They don’t need to intercept your conversations for that.
After thinking about the creepy ad for a while, it occurred to me that a week earlier my girlfriend and I had talked about buying another cabinet, to complete the set. I can’t remember if I had actually looked online, but if I did it could explain why she was shown an ad for a similar cabinet on her phone. Except, my cabinet is by the brand Kartell, while the ad was for a linens company called Bonsoirs, which doesn’t sell furniture. Basically, the ad was for bedsheets, but the image featured our exact Kartell cabinet.
It’s possible that the eerie similarity between the two pictures is pure coincidence. That’s also what a spokesperson for Facebook said when I asked them why this happened. In 2016, Facebook officially denied that the company uses your microphone, your text messages or your camera for ads. Maybe, there’s just such a huge amount of products out there that it’s only a matter of time before a combination of sheets, floors and bedside tables similar to your own appears in your feed. Or, maybe our bedroom is just really unoriginal. Still, something doesn’t feel right.
"It is frustrating that the burden seems to fall on consumers to protect themselves from intrusions into their daily lives," said Maryant Fernández Pérez, senior digital policy officer at the European consumer organisation BEUC. The organisation is made up of national consumer groups in 32 European countries, which advise how to minimise invasions into digital privacy. But Fernández Pérez thinks that ultimately, tech companies and authorities need to step up and take responsibility. For instance, she says the laws regulating privacy policies at EU level (the General Data Protection Regulations or GDPR) aren’t enforced often enough.
Believe it or not, one of the few companies actually doing something to improve user privacy is Apple. For instance, iPhones using the latest operating system, iOS 14, have an orange or green light that switches on every time an app accesses your camera or microphone – even when you are not using that app. iOS14 also notifies users when an app wants to read the text copied on their clipboard. It’s thanks to this feature that users noticed TikTok was reading their copy-pastes.
There is simply no way to know if the ad appeared on my girlfriend’s phone by coincidence or because of some scary ad-targeting. Fernández Pérez understands my cynicism. “Considering the number of scandals and revelations about how [big tech] controls what we do online, it’s no wonder that people expect the worst.” My girlfriend and I definitely won’t be bringing our phones into the bedroom for a while.