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Smartphone apps use audio recognition to spy on your TV viewing

30 Jan 2018 | Rasmus Larsen |

Games as well messaging and social apps on smartphones are increasingly being used to track what you are watching on your TV – even when you are not using your phone actively. Apps are using questionable methods that involve audio recognition, according to a report by the New York Times.

Using audio recognition

Have you ever wondered why some social platforms seem to know a little too much about you? There is a good chance that that audio recognition and even more suspect methods are to blame.

Games such as ‘Pool 3D’, ‘Beer Pong: Trickshot’ and ‘Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin’ use special audio recognition software to spy on your TV viewing habits. This data is being sold to advertisers that use it for targeted ads.

- ”The apps use software from Alphonso, a start-up that collects TV-viewing data for advertisers. 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,” the report from the NYT said. “The software can also detect sounds even when a phone is in a pocket if the apps are running in the background.”

New York Times has identified more than 250 games available on Android via the Google Play store that use Alphonso software. Roughly 1000 apps ranging from children’s games to messaging and social apps use Alphonso’s software. It claims that some of these are also available through Apple’s app store but did not specify which ones.

- “The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Ashish Chordia, Alphonso’s chief executive told the New York Times.

The company, founded in 2013, refused to specify how many people it is collecting data from due to its competitors. However, it stressed that the apps do not record conversations in the living room.

New York Times notes that similar techniques are used to track your theater viewing habits and video viewing when you are outside of your home. Alphonso’s software is integrated into Shazam, which requires microphone access on the phones where it is installed to work. The software is also “gathering troves of viewing data from companies like TiVo and directly from TVs and streaming devices through deals with manufacturers”. The collected information is being tied to IP addresses, NYT claims.

Watch out

Nielsen, the analyst company, is using similar audio recognition techniques to collect viewership data on Netflix and other streaming apps.

Some TV platforms are using something called ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) to analyze what you are watching on-screen in order to serve recommendations and targeted ads. Roku is one of those companies. LG, Samsung and Vizio are also using ACR to collect viewing data. Vizio settled one such case involving illegally collected user data with the FTC in early 2017.

How can you prevent all of this? The first step would be to block games and apps from using the microphone on your smartphone or tablet. ACR is harder to bypass but there should be an option in the menu to turn it off.

- Source: New York Times

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