Over 250 Google Play Store games are reportedly tracking information on TV habits to send to advertisers, according to The New York Times.
In its report, the news agency says these apps implement software from a startup called Alphonso to use a smartphone’s microphone to listen for specific audio signals in TV shows, movies and ads. Alphonso then uses the audio-recognizing app Shazam to determine what the sound clips are and which advertisers would want this data accordingly. Shazam, which was recently acquired by Apple, declined to comment to the Times about Alphonso.
According to the Times, some of the tracking takes place in apps that otherwise don’t even use a smartphone’s microphone. The software can also detect sounds if the apps are running in the background of a pocketed phone.
While Alphonso told the Times that its software is not being used in children’s apps, the publication found this to be untrue. Over a dozen children-oriented games, including Teeth Fixed and Zap Balloons, were discovered to be using the startup’s software. The Times said it discovered these titles by searching “Alphonso automated” and “Alphonso software” in the Google Play Store.)
“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Ashish Chordia, Alphonso’s chief executive, told the Times. Chordia also said the company also provides opt–out instructions on its website and that its disclosures comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines. However, Alphonso declined to say how many smartphone users it has collected data from or which apps it uses, stating that a rival company has been trying to tarnish its relationships with developers.
Some experts say that the disclosures need to be more transparent. “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,’” said Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the advocacy group Consumers Union, in an interview with the Times. “They need to go above and beyond and be careful to make sure consumers know what’s going on.”
For others, disclosures of any kind just aren’t enough. “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 Times. “It’s not what’s legal. It is what’s not creepy.”