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BLOG: Snooping: It's not a crime, it's a feature

Mike Elgan | April 17, 2011
New apps hijack the microphone in your cell phone to listen in on your life.

Obviously, the idea that app companies are eavesdropping on private moments creeps everybody out. But all these apps try to get around user revulsion by recording not actual sounds, but sound patterns, which are then uploaded to a server as data and compared with the patterns of other sounds.

Color compares sounds between users to figure out which users are listening to the same thing. Shopkick compares sounds to its database of unique inaudible patterns that identify each store. The SoundPrint- and Media-Sync-based apps compare sound patterns to their database of patterns mapped from all known TV shows.

 

Who else is listening?

Apps that listen have been around for years. One type of app uses your phone's microphone to identify music. Apps like Shazam and SoundHound can "name that tune" in a few seconds by simply "listening" to whatever song is playing in the room.

A class of alarm clock apps uses your phone's microphone to listen to you sleep. One example is the HappyWakeUp app. If you're sleeping like a log, the app avoids waking you. When HappyWakeUp hears you tossing and turning near the scheduled time, it wakes you up with an alarm.

Of course, the use of your microphone with these apps is well understood by users, because that's the main purpose of the app.

The new apps are often sneakier about it. The vast majority of people who use the Color app, for example, have no idea that their microphones are being activated to gather sounds.

Welcome to the future.

 

Coming soon: A lot more apps that listen

What you need to know about marketing and advertising is that data is king. Marketers can never get enough, because the more they know about you and your lifestyle, the more effective their marketing and the more valuable and expensive their advertising.

That's why marketers love cellphones, which are viewed as universal sensors for conducting highly granular, real-time market research.

Of course, lots of apps transmit all kinds of private data back to the app maker. Some send back each phone's Unique Device Identification (UDI), the number assigned to each mobile phone, which can be used to positively identify it. Other apps tell the servers the phone's location. Many apps actually snoop around on your phone, gathering up personal information, such as gender, age and ZIP code, and zapping it back to the company over your phone's data connection.

Most app makers disclose much of what they gather, including audio data, but they often do so either on their websites or buried somewhere in the legal mumbo jumbo.

 

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