If you’re afraid that your smartphone is spying on you…well, you’re right. But that’s kind of a non-optional part of modern living: amassing huge amounts of consumer data is how companies like Google operate. But recently some third-party apps have been found taking a few more liberties than they should, like a HAL 9000 in your pocket.
The New York Times reported in late December that hundreds of Android apps have been found snooping on their users with the built-in microphones on smartphones. Specifically, these apps are listening for TV show broadcasts, commercials, and even movies you watch in the theater, amassing information on what kind of things you like to watch. The third-party software, from a company called Alphonso, has been embedded in many Android apps available for free on the Play Store. Some of the apps are also available on the iPhone, and their App Store entries claim to use the same technology and snooping habits.
Why Listen to TV Broadcasts?
Alphonso’s software uses the same technology that Shazam and similar services employ to automatically detect the song you’re listening to. It samples small bits of audio, creating a digital “fingerprint” of it, and comparing it against a a database on their server to identify the show or movie. In fact, Alphonso’s CEO says they have a deal with Shazam, and use their specific technology to do this. But this embedded software can even be listening even when your phone’s screen is turned off and it’s ostensibly idle.
Why? It’s all about the advertising. Marketing firms know that people who watch certain TV shows are more likely to buy certain products. For example, if you’re binge-watching the latest Marvel Comics show on Netflix, it’s reasonable to assume you’d click on an ad for an Avengers Blu-ray sale the next time you’re browsing Amazon. If you watch Hawaii Five-0 on CBS, you might be a little more interested in a cruise line package vacation than, say, airfare to New York City. If you watch NBC Nightly News, you might be more likely to want a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.
These minor connections and thousands more like them build up a profile of you as a consumer, connected to your digital identities on Google, Amazon, Apple, Windows, Facebook, Twitter, and more or less every major mobile and web hub out there. It’s not exactly insidious—you’re not being forced to do anything you don’t want to—but every piece of data and every connection made in these profiles serves a single purpose. That purpose is to make you more likely to buy stuff, and that makes the data collected incredibly valuable.
Hence the somewhat sneaky methods companies like Alphonso are reaching for to get even more data about your life and your desires. The more data they collect, the more complete the picture they can form of you as a consumer, and the more advertisers will pay them. It’s not illegal, and some of them are toeing some very thin lines to keep it that way. Alphonso claims it never records the voice data of human speech from people, only the audio coming from TVs and other electronic devices. But there’s no denying that the idea of your phone listening to what’s going on around you is creepy, especially…
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