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Mobile games found using mic to track users’ TV habits

Always-on listening devices, such as smart speakers, may be increasing concerns about these devices recording and tracking users’ conversations and other data, but it seems a significant number of mobile apps — including games aimed at children — are already engaged in this shady behavior. An investigation has found over 250 apps on Android‘s Play Store that use audio recognition software to track users’ TV and ad-viewing habits, even if the app is in the background.

A new report from the New York Times published this week writes that the software comes from a startup called Alphonso, and that is uses the microphones on smartphones and tablets to listen for audio signals that identify TV shows, movies, and advertisements. The always-on software has been found in games that don’t require the mic for play, and continues to run when the app isn’t being actively used.

While these apps are required to get permission from users to access a device’s mic, the prompts are often found to use misleading or vague language when explaining what the microphone will be used for.

“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Alphonso CEO Ashish Chordia told the NYT. However, consumer privacy expert Justin Brookman of Consumers Union told the paper “When you see ‘permission for microphone access for ads,’ it may not be clear to a user that, Oh, this means it’s going to be listening to what I do all the time to see if I’m watching Monday Night Football.”

The audio data collected by Alphonso’s software is then usually transferred to Shazam — the music identification service recently acquired by Apple — which identifies the sources and sells that information back to Alphonso as part of their deal. All of this TV watching data is then sold to advertisers to better target their ads, both on TV networks and directly to mobile users.

While the NYT‘s report says it found over 250 games with Alphonso’s software on Android, with some of these apps also available on Apple’s App Store, Alphonso says its product is used in roughly 1,000 apps.

SOURCE New York Times