That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You're Watching on TV


In 2016, the US Federal Trade Coimmission issued a warning to app developers that had installed Silverpush, software that uses device microphones to listen for audio signals inaudible to the human ear that identify the television programmes they are watching. Nonetheless, similar technology continued to spread. In 2017, software from the TV data collection startup Alphonso, began to spread. As many as 1,000 gaming, messaging, and social apps using Alphonso's software, some of them aimed at children, have the ability to track what TV programmes users watch, even when the games aren't being played.

As long as the apps are running in the background, Alphonso's software uses audio signals in TV ads and shows to identify what users are watching. It can also follow the ads people see in their friends' homes and elsewhere, detect movies via snippets provided by the studios, and recognise music via a deal with the listening app Shazam. The viewing information is tied to IP addresses, which can be matched to more detailed identifying characteristics via data brokers even without personally identifiable information like names and addresses. Alphonso, which collects TV viewing data for advertisers, says the apps do not collect human speech, and that their functioning is clearly explained in the apps' descriptions and privacy policies. Users, the company says, opt in knowingly and can opt out at any time. This type of data is highly valuable to advertisers, who spend $70 billion in the US on TV. Previous similar efforts - software known as Silverpush - have attracted warnings and fines from the Federal Trade Commission. While it's not entirely clear how much information Alphonso successfully collects every day, these are concerns that also apply to internet-connected speaker devices from Amazon and Google.

Writer: Sapna Maheshwari
Publication: New York Times

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