A recent report from The New York Times highlights a controversial piece of software named Alphonso that tracks users’ TV habits. Alphonso is quietly built into many iOS and Android apps and also has a deal with Shazam which Apple is buying.
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The report shares that many seemingly harmless games and apps have Alphonso under-the-hood listening to what users are watching on their TVs and even in movie theaters. Most users aren’t aware of what’s happening and some of the apps are apparently marketed toward children.
It has been discovered that over 250 games on Google’s Play Store use Alphonso’s tracking software and that some number also exist on Apple’s App Store. In the same way that The New York Times found games and apps using Alphonso in the Play Store, we were able to find a number of hits by searching ‘Alphonso iOS iTunes’. Pocket Bowling 3D HD, Basketball 3D, Pool 3D, Dark Runner 2, Beer Pong: Trick Shot are among some of the iOS games that appear to use Alphonso.
Alphonso’s CEO Ashish Chordia said that its software is in over 1,000 games and apps in total, but didn’t share details about which apps or how many users it collects data from.
What’s most alarming is that Alphonso can potentially still record audio when the apps that include it are running in the background or even if a device is in a pocket.
Chordia says that “the consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” but in many cases users may only see a request for an app to use their microphone, but not an explanation or details without diving into dense terms and conditions that may be difficult to find in the first place.
Here’s how this tracking software works:
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.
It is important to note that the software is said ignore to human voices, and is tuned to listen and collect audio from TV and movies, but this isn’t likely to totally alleviate concerns.
More interestingly, Apple’s Shazam has a deal where it processes data that Alphonso collects for a fee.
Mr. Chordia said that Alphonso has a deal with the music-listening app Shazam, which has microphone access on many phones. Alphonso is able to provide the snippets it picks up to Shazam, he said, which can use its own content-recognition technology to identify users and then sell that information to Alphonso.
Now that Apple owns Shazam as of last month, it would seem likely for the partnership with Alphonso to end, given Apple’s interest in user privacy and security, even if it isn’t the Shazam app itself collecting user’s data. And if Apple doesn’t seek out and remove apps that use Alphonso from the App Store, a stricter set of transparency rules could go a long way to put users at ease.
The New York Times notes that technologies like Alphonso have brought on lawsuits recently. Last year, Vizio had to pay out $2.2M in a lost case over collecting and selling viewing data from its connected TVs. Back in 2016, the FCC sent out warnings to developers who were using a similarly controversial monitoring software called Silverpush.