Is Your Smartphone Spying On Your TV Habits? FTC Warns App Developers

You’re ready to kick back for the weekend and do something mindless. No one will ever know if you watch five episodes of “Zombie House Flipping” instead of the PBS NewsHour, right?

Maybe for now.

Could be, there’s already an app on your smartphone or tablet capable of finding out what you’re watching by picking up audio signals transmitted from TV ads. Human ears can’t hear the audio beacons, but an app may have hijacked your device’s microphone to do the job.

More importantly, the ads may be a means for third parties to identify all the devices used by any individual, privacy advocates say.

The Federal Trade Commission just sent warning letters to 12 app developers it says have installed a software development kit that could turn mobile devices into intelligence-gathering tools for advertisers and other entities interested in analyzing the behavior of users.

The consumer protection agency says the apps, sold on Google Play, appear to have incorporated software from SilverPush, a marketing technology company.

“Using this technology, SilverPush could generate a detailed log of the television
content viewed while a user’s mobile phone was turned on,” the FTC said in the letters to the developers, whose names were not released publicly. The app need not be in use for the microphone in the consumer’s device to detect a unique audio code beamed out by television ads.

The FTC says the apps require users to grant permission for the use of the microphones on their devices before they can complete a download, even though the apps appear to have no functions that would require the use of a microphone.

SilverPush has said that its audio beacons have not been deployed in TV ads for the U.S. market so far, the FTC says. But the agency warned the dozen app developers that they could be violating federal law if those audio signals do become activated in the United States, and if they didn’t warn users who downloaded the apps that their viewing habits could be under surveillance.

FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield says the agency doesn’t name the recipients of warning letters who have not been found in violation. It also doesn’t comment on whether it is conducting an ongoing investigation, he says.

Although all the apps subject to the warning letter were offered on Google Play, Mayfield says the FTC isn’t definitively stating that similar apps aren’t available through other app stores.

India-based SilverPush promotes its audio beacon technology as a way for marketers to get a fuller picture of the various devices in use by each consumer, “bridging multiple devices used by [a] single user.” The mobile device detects the audio code from a TV monitor (which can be connected to a computer), making a match. “The individual ID is mapped back to its audience genome and a brand-consumer journey has been started,” the company says on its website.

SilverPush says millions of mobile devices containing its software are now constantly listening for its audio codes from television commercials.

Privacy advocates including the Center for Democracy and Technology alerted the FTC to the potential harm from the SilverPush software, according to a November article in Ars Technica. Other companies are working on similar technology to cross-track the stable of computing devices used by individuals, according to the story.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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