Hundreds of apps available in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store have been programmed to listen in on users, a report by the New York Times has claimed.
The offending apps contained code from a company called Alphonso which uses a phone’s microphone to listen for audio from advertisements or shows broadcast on TV in order to launch more carefully targeted advertising campaigns to the user.
While Alphonso claims the apps required permission from the user before they started listening in, once approval had been granted they could listen even if the app was running in the background.
According to the NYT:
“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 information can then be used to target ads more precisely and to try to analyze things like which ads prompted a person to go to a car dealership.”
Many of the apps, such as Dream Run, Honey Quest and Bunny Jump are games targeting children.
Perhaps more alarming is that this is all technically above board as the permissions needed for the apps to access the microphone are listed in the privacy policies – that small print that you really should start reading before you download an app.
“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Alphonso’s chief executive Ashish Chordia told the NYT.
Mr Chordia added that the company did not approve of its code being added to apps used by children.
On its website, Alphonso says:
“40 million smart TVs, set-top boxes, mobile and living room devices with embedded Alphonso technology report viewership data in real time.
“When these datasets combine, alongside an array of licensed third-party datasets for location, purchase and other consumer behavior attribution, the result is a completely new way to reach TV audiences and measure results.”
The take-away from the NYT investigation is that if you value your privacy you should take note of the permissions an app requests before you install it.
If an app requests access to your smartphone’s microphone and camera and you’re not sure why, you may want to think twice before downloading it.