A large number of gaming apps use software that allows a smartphone’s microphone to listen in for audio signals coming from certain TV shows, according to a recent report.
More than 250 gaming apps in the Google Play store and a number of apps in Apple’s App Store are keeping tabs on the viewing habits of users, according to The New York Times. These apps use software from Alphonso, a startup which collects TV viewing data for advertisers.
How It Works
The report details how Alphonso’s software works, noting that by using a smartphone’s microphone, “Alphonso’s software can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see.”
This data can be used to deliver more specific and accurate targeted ads, and by using location, can even offer some insight on which ads may have caused users to visit a particular retail location, or car dealership.
The Times report notes that “Some of the tracking is taking place through gaming apps that do not otherwise involve a smartphone’s microphone, including some apps that are geared toward children. The software can also detect sounds even when a phone is in a pocket if the apps are running in the background.”
Alphonso has defended the practice by claiming that users must agree to grant access to their microphones and location information. Alphonso chief executive Ashish Chordia declined to mention how much data was collected, nor would he disclose the names of the “roughly 1,000 games and the messaging and social apps with Alphonso software” due to other concerns.
Chordia also told the Times that Alphonso has a deal with the music-listening app Shazam, a popular app that has been granted microphone access on many phones. Alphonso and Shazam’s software can work together to identify users and recognize content. Shazam, which was recently acquired by Apple, declined comment.
While it’s true that many apps ask for microphone or camera access — with users often choosing to allow it — it’s not unreasonable to think that users would believe there’s a reason for this which is relevant to actually using the app. In this case, and others in which apps have no clear need for microphone access, app developers need to make these exact reasons for microphone or camera access clear to users.
Our advice: only allow microphone and camera access from trusted developers, and only do so for apps that can’t offer full functionality without that access.