Your Phone May Spy and Report on Your TV Viewing

by Jeff Sovern

Back in December, the Times had an article headlined That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You’re Watching on TV, that reported that hundreds–even thousands–of apps, some geared towards children, use the phone microphone to identify what shows people are watching, which can in turn be used to target ads to them more precisely. The article reported about the company that supplies the software for doing so, Alphonso:

Alphonso said that its software, which does not record human speech, is clearly explained in app descriptions and privacy policies and that the company cannot gain access to users’ microphones and locations unless they agree.

“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Ashish Chordia, Alphonso’s chief executive, said, adding that the company’s disclosures comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines. The company also provides optout instructions on its website.

But we know consumers rarely read such things.  The story includes a picture of an app with a statement on it reading that "The app uses audio to detect TV ads and content and shows appropriate mobile ads." That at least is more likely to be read.  But will consumers understand what it means? What about children itching to play a game on their phones? Will consumers know that "TV ads and content" means the app is spying on what is on a TV in their vicinity, as opposed to, say, that the app will know when an ad also shown on TV runs on their phone?  Personally, I'm skeptical. Creepy.

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