Apparently, there are some smartphones out there where the microphone is actually listening to you. More specifically, they’re listening to hear what you’re watching on TV. Smartphone apps have been doing this for a little while now – using your microphone to access which TV shows you’re watching. This includes which ads you hear and even what movies you see. But a recent report in the New York Times suggests that this practice might be more prevalent, and more secretive than consumers might like.
The Times has said that they’ve identified more than 250 games on the Google Play Store that have one specific type of software for monitoring users’ TV habits. Who makes this software? A company called Alphonso. The scary part is that the apps that are using it, aren’t disclosing it. Well, they do disclose it, but it’s buried extremely deep in their terms and conditions and often in a place where they know no one is going. One game that staff from the Times installed (Endless 9*9 puzzle) did ask for location and microphone access – without any explanation. This app did disclose that it was tracking “TV viewership details” in order to “show you TV-related content and ads”, but only if you went into the games settings. Users didn’t have to proactively agree to this in advance.
But this isn’t new. The FCC has warned companies about doing this in the past. In fact, in 2016, the FCC told a dozen Android app developers who were using similar software, that users need to be notified of this. Why? Because they’re collecting data without their real consent. Those apps weren’t warning users at all about data collection, whereas the apps identified by the Times are presenting that information, even if it’s hidden. It’s not clear if that goes far enough though, and prior FTC guidance suggests it might not. The commission has said that only including disclosures in, say, a YouTube video description isn’t acceptable, since not every viewer may see it. Since people can download these games without viewing the disclosure, the same issues could come up here.
There have been conspiracy theories for years now about major apps — Facebook, in particular — tapping smartphone mics in order to listen to what people say and then displaying ads based on their conversations. That isn’t quite what’s happening here; though these apps can hear everything you say, they’re only supposed to listen for recognizable audio from TV shows, movies, and advertisements, which they then use for ad targeting. That doesn’t make the behavior any more welcome, but it is at least slightly less creepy.
I’ve joked for a while that Instagram can hear what I’m saying because they often show me ads, based off of conversations that I’m having with my friends or family. And maybe they are. Instagram, on my phone, is an app that uses my microphone. Which does make sense as you post videos on there, so I get it. Now I’m not saying that Instagram does this, but that’s just one app that seems to know a lot about me. If you have an Android phone, be sure to check out the apps you’re downloading in an attempt to keep your information safe.