Are your smartphone apps monitoring you through your microphone?
In what could feasibly be a publicity stunt for the new season of Black Mirror, but sadly isn’t, hundreds of apps have been revealed to run a software that monitors its users viewing habits using their smartphones’ microphones.
The software in question is run by a company called Alphonso, and works by listening in on its users’ surrounding environments in a bid to discern what they are watching on TV. Data is then, predictably, sold on to advertisers, who ameliorate their targeted ads accordingly. Much to the chagrin of the put-upon masses.
The technology, whose sinister practice came to light in The New York Times, is so pervasive that it will even register a user’s habits when the phone is placed inside a pocket, or if apps are running in the background. More distressingly, many of the apps that run the software are targeted at children, with ostensibly unthreatening games like Honey Quest, Pool 3D and Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin all channelling the unsettling software.
This isn’t the first time that companies have been found guilty of using quotidien technology to spy on its none-the-wiser patrons; the Amazon Echo was recently proven vulnerable to hackers wielding the power to adapt it into a spying device using just an SD card, while children’s toys such as Hello Barbie and My Friend Cayla have been labelled as vehicles for surveillance. WikiLeaks also weighed in on the debate, arguing back in March that the CIA could compromise people’s smartphones and smart TVs to facilitate spying.
It appears 2018 isn’t the year this trend will be bucked, with Alphonso joining the roster of culpable companies. The number of apps and games running the software is not thought to be negligible – estimates are around 1,000 – nor are they confined to obscure platforms; 250 or so are available to download from the titanic Google Play, with a smaller but not anomalous number on Apple’s App Store.
Alphonso, in the meantime, maintains a veneer of virtuousness, asserting that their technology doesn’t record people’s conversations, and that the minutiae of their policy is clearly laid down in the app’s description and privacy detailing. Because everyone has the time to trawl through reams of small-print legal documents on the off-chance that their apps may be spying on them…
Pool 3D, one of the apps to run the software, attempts to expound its purpose, reach and conduct. “Access to the microphone is only allowed with your consent,” the app explains, “and the audio samples do not leave your device but are instead hashed into digital ‘audio signatures’”.
The audio signatures are compared to “commercial content” that plays on your TV – here used as an umbrella term encompassing games consoles, media players, streaming programs and so on. Alphonso then uses that information “to deliver more relevant ads to your mobile device”. The software, the app went on, “does not recognise or understand human conversations or other sounds”.
So they’re doing us a veritable favour then. Not. Users with (eminently understandable) qualms about this practice can protect themselves by denying microphone access to apps which don’t require it. Hear, hear. Or rather, emphatically don’t.