A few years ago, people would have considered you to be paranoid if you thought your phone was always listening to you. But now it has become common practice for developers to ask your permission to use your phone’s microphone, whether or not that functionality actually has anything to do with the app or not.
A New York Times report this week highlighted one particular startup called Alphonso, whose software is being used by hundreds of app developers. This software collects TV-viewing data for advertisers “by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see.” Advertisers then use this information to target ads more appropriately to individual users.
None of this comes as much of a surprise, but the pervasiveness of the software is somewhat concerning. In addition to listening in for ads and shows on TV while a user is using the app, Alphonso’s software can also detect sounds if the app is left running in the background. So even if the user thinks that they are done with the app (and hence any tracking it might be doing), it will continue to listen in until the user manually closes the app.
“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” said Alphonso CEO Ashish Chordia. He stressed that the software’s disclosures comply with FTC guidelines, and pointed to opt-out instructions online.
While Alphonso’s software may be above board, the applications of the software are where everything starts to fall apart. Chordia says that he doesn’t approve of the software being implemented in apps meant for children, but the NYT points out that it can be found in more than a dozen games clearly aimed at younger audiences.
“We have to be really careful as we have more devices capturing more information in living rooms and bedrooms and on the street and in other people’s homes that the public is not blindsided and surprised by things,” Dave Morgan, CEO of Simulmedia, told the New York Times. “It’s not what’s legal. It is what’s not creepy.”