Instagram constantly accesses a smartphone’s camera while the app is open, and monitors users without seeking their consent, a new lawsuit has alleged. It does so to gain valuable insight into how users interact with ads on the platform, in order to target ads and further increase its advertising revenue, it added. By doing so, Instagram and parent Facebook have been to monitor users’ most intimate moments, including those in the privacy of their own homes, in addition to collecting valuable insight and market research on its users, the lawsuit alleged. Bloomberg first reported this.

The lawsuit sought appropriate compensation, and also an order requiring Facebook and Instagram to “disgorge profits or other benefits” that they have “acquired as a result of its invasions of privacy”. The lawsuit was filed after reports emerged that Instagram had access to iPhone users’ camera even though they hadn’t allowed the app to do so. It also said that Instagram’s practise was violative of the California Consumer Privacy Act.

Why the lawsuit was filed: With the new iOS14, Apple’s operating system for iPhones and iPads for 2020, the company had introduced a slew of additional notifications — among which was a notification whenever an app accessed an iPhone’s camera (a green indicator) or mic (a yellow indicator). By virtue of these additional notifications, it was reportedly found that Instagram was accessing the camera of iPhones even though users hadn’t consented to it.

Upon discovery, Instagram defended itself by saying that a bug was causing the issue. “We only access your camera when you tell us to – for example, when you swipe from Feed to Camera. We found and are fixing a bug in iOS 14 Beta that mistakenly indicates that some people are using the camera when they aren’t. We do not access your camera in those instances, and no content is recorded,” the company had said.

The full extent and scope of Facebook and Instagram’s conduct is “only just beginning to come to light” as a result of the iOS update, the lawsuit noted.

‘Facebook and Instagram can see in real-time how users respond to ads’

“[Facebook and Instagram] engage in this conduct for one main reason: to collect lucrative and valuable data on its users that it would not otherwise have access to,” the lawsuit alleged. It also said that by obtaining extremely private and intimate personal data on their users, including in the privacy of their own homes, Facebook and Instagram are able to increase their advertising revenue by targeting users more than ever before.

“Instagram has no legitimate purpose for accessing users’ smartphone cameras while they are not using Instagram’s services, i.e., accessing Instagram’s camera feature. Since this is not a part of any services that Instagram provides, and Instagram claims to ‘only access your camera when you tell us to,’ users could in no way consent to this conduct.” — from the lawsuit

“For example, Defendants are able to see in-real time how users respond to advertisements on Instagram, providing extremely valuable information to its advertisers,” the lawsuit said. It further noted that Instagram’s privacy policy doesn’t disclose that the app has access to smartphone cameras even when users haven’t consented to it.

Another change to iOS14 has Facebook worried about its ad business

Every Apple device comes with a unique identification code, which can be used to track what users do on their phone. Unsurprisingly, the code, called identifier for advertisers (IDFA) is extensively used by adtech companies, including Facebook to track user behaviour across various services so that they can run targeted ads at them. However, when Apple announced iOS 14, it said that any developer who wants to use the unique code will also have have to take explicit consent from users.

For Facebook’s Audience Network, which is its ad network for developers, it is expecting a drop of over 50% in revenue. Other developers like the UK-based DMG Media, which owns outlets such as Daily Mail, are reportedly considering nuking their iOS app altogether. The new update will “disproportionately” affect the Audience Network given its heavy dependence on app advertising, Facebook had earlier said. Apple’s updates may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that Facebook may not even offer it on iOS 14.