There is this popular conspiracy theory that companies like Facebook are using our smartphone microphones to eavesdrop on us in order to track us, know us better, and thus serve up relevant ads. This is not helped by the sometimes freaky coincidences in which you see an ad on Facebook or Instagram right after talking about it with a friend in-person and not online.
Facebook has clearly denied these allegations, but it seems that while Facebook might not be doing it, other companies are. In a report from The New York Times, it has been discovered that hundreds of apps are using software by a company called Alphonso that in turn uses your smartphone’s microphone to track your TV viewing habits.
For those unfamiliar, Alphonso provides software that can identify TV shows based on sound, kind of like how Shazam works for music. To the company’s credit, they aren’t actually listening to your conversations, but rather they use sound signals emitted by TVs and matches them to shows in their database to know what you’re watching, and that data can in turn be sold to advertisers.
The only problem highlighted by the NYT’s report is that the software is being used in apps that you would last expect, such as games, some of which are geared towards children (Alphonso says that they do not approve of its software being used in apps meant for kids). Note that this app isn’t exactly being sneaky in its execution, since thanks to Apple and Google, users need to give explicit permission for an app to access certain aspects of the phone like the camera, photo gallery, microphone, location, and so on.
This means that for the most part, users have agreed to let the app access its microphone. This is also mentioned in the software use policies, which let’s be honest, not many people actually bother to read. The NYT’s report has counted over 250 games in the Google Play Store that uses Alphonso’s software, with some also being spotted in Apple’s App Store.