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Hundreds of games on the Play Store reportedly keep track of your TV watching habits

Over 250 mobile games on the Play Store were found to feature software that listened in to your TV show and movie watching habits.

Published onDecember 29, 2017

  • Over 250 mobile games were found to have software that tracks TV watching habits
  • The software was from Alphonso, which specializes in TV retargeting
  • Some games that feature the software are also on Apple’s App Store

Always-listening devices like Google Home and Amazon’s Echo devices already have at least a small creep factor, but always-listening mobile games? That’s a different level of creepy that, according to The New York Times, applies to over 250 mobile titles from Android‘s Play Store and some games from Apple’s App Store.

Games like Pool 3DBeer Pong: TrickshotReal Bowling Strike 10 Pin, and Honey Quest, along with hundreds more, use software from Alphonso, a startup that specializes in “TV retargeting.” When you’re watching TV, you likely use your smartphone or tablet during commercial breaks. Alphonso’s software collects data on what you’re watching and delivers targeted ads to your mobile device based on that data.

Talking to The New York Times, Alphonso CEO Ashish Chordia said the company’s software was able to get data from those who didn’t turn off their phones while watching TV:

A lot of the folks will go and turn off their phone, but a small portion of people don’t and put it in their pocket. In those cases, we are able to pick up a small sample who is watching the show or the movie.

Chordia also said that Alphonso has a deal with Shazam, which Apple recently purchased. According to the deal, Alphonso picks up snippets of audio data and provides them to Shazam, which puts the data through its content-recognition technology to identify users. Once that’s done, Shazam sells the resulting data back to Alphonso.

Scoping out Alphonso’s website, it can use targeted advertising to “reach audiences of TV shows that [brands] are not currently buying.” For example, Ford could target viewers of Monday Night Football in order to buy ad time from ESPN and send ads to phones and tablets because it knows you’re watching the game.

As for the apps, they used the microphones in smartphones and tablets to pay attention for “audio signals,” which let the software know when someone is watching a particular TV show, movie, or ad. Even creepier, this happens whether games are in the foreground or background and whether games need or don’t need microphones to work.

According to Chordia, Alphonso’s software is explained in app descriptions and privacy policies, with the company unable to get access to your device’s microphones and locations unless you agree:

The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time.

However, Consumers Union director of consumer privacy and technology policy Justin Brookman said Alphonso’s business practices are not clear and, instead, are misleading:

When you see ‘permission for microphone access for ads,’ it may not be clear to a user that, Oh, this means it’s going to be listening to what I do all the time to see if I’m watching ‘Monday Night Football.’
They need to go above and beyond and be careful to make sure consumers know what’s going on.
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Alphonso is playing a dangerous game. Vizio was ordered to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that the company was collecting and selling viewing data from millions of its TVs without owners knowing about it. The Federal Trade Commission also warned app developers who used software for their apps to listen to audio signals when users watched TV.

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