Imagine it’s a typical night and you’re watching TV — maybe it’s Portlandia or The Amazing Race — and your phone is placed innocently on your couch. Now imagine that during a commercial break, your phone’s microphone surreptitiously started listening in and learning about all the television shows you watch — including those guilty pleasures?
It turns out there’s a piece of software packaged into some apps that listens in on your TV viewing habits, and it’s called Silverpush. It’s creepy enough that the Federal Trade Commission had to step in today.
The FTC sent out warning letters to 12 app developers who have the Silverpush code in their apps (all of which are available for download in the Google Play store).
“These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them,” says Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in an announcement released today. “Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it’s shared with.”
The India-based company that developed Silverpush says it’s “leading the industry in bringing the customer journey from TV-Search-Social-Mobile.” Silverpush piggybacks on apps that you download onto your phone.
Here’s the creepy way it works: Certain commercials are “watermarked” with a secret audio signal so high pitched that most humans can’t hear it, but the microphone on your phone can. When the commercial comes on, Silverpush uses audio beacon technology to detect the watermarked signal and sends a detailed log of your television viewing history back to the media network, and can even send you follow-up advertisements.
The company describes how the technology works on its website, however initial reports indicate that people who download apps that have Silverpush are not informed of its presence. It doesn’t ever feel good to be spied on by third parties without consent.
That’s why the FTC isn’t messing around, as the warning letter states that if applications “enabled third parties to monitor television-viewing habits of U.S. consumers and your statements or user interface stated or implied otherwise, this could constitute a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”
This is the most recent occurrence of Android app developers being hit by the FTC. Makers of a game called Running Fred were penalized for a slimy bait-and-switch scheme recently, as well.
The high-pitched signaling isn’t in the United States, yet — says Silverpush. “Silverpush has represented that its audio beacons are not currently embedded into any television programming aimed at U.S. households,” reads the FTC letter.
While spying by app-makers as a way to turn a quick profit seems terrible, it’s got nothing on the National Security Administration, which allegedly could remotely turn on your iPhone and use the microphone to spy on people. Yeesh.