Silverpush Stops Using Sneaky, Inaudible TV Audio Tracking Beacons After FTC Warning
from the tread-carefully dept
ISPs and cable companies already track and sell your online behavior, your location data, and effectively everything you do on the Internet (to the second). Now broadcasters and app developers are cooking up a new technology that uses so-called “smart audio beacons” emitted during television programs to help track user viewing habits. These tones, inaudible to the human ear, are picked up by applications which use your smartphone or tablet microphone to listen and record them. That data can then be used to build a profile that potentially matches your existing online data with your viewing habits.
While the technology appears to currently only be in use overseas right now, the FTC felt the need to issue a press release recently warning companies using the technology that they too are being watched. The warning accompanied a letter the FTC sent to 12 app developers (pdf) that informs devs that if they use the technology and don’t inform consumers, they’re potentially violating Section 5 of the FTC Act. The FTC’s attention was grabbed after they realized that the apps in question failed completely to inform users they were being tracked, or that they were even using the device microphone:
Two days later, the company pioneering this new snooping tech, Silverpush, announced that it had “exited from all UAB (Unique Audio Beacon) based business and shifted to a newer product line” and that it would “appreciate if SilverPush is not associated with UAB based business going forward.” The company also seems to be claiming in conversations with the media that this sudden departure had absolutely nothing to do with the FTC’s warning:
“When asked by Motherboard why it pivoted away from audio beacons, a SilverPush spokesperson would only say its decision was ?a natural process to move to a more evolved product as a part of our business plan? that began almost a year ago, and again insisted that it wasn’t responding to privacy concerns. The company spokesperson also said that SilverPush has never partnered with US app developers in the past, and claimed that any apps that integrate its audio beacon tracking code explicitly ask for permission before accessing a device’s microphone through a pop-up message within the app itself.
Motherboard was not able to verify these claims, because SilverPush will not identify which apps and companies are using its code. As of April 2015, the company claimed that 67 apps were using its code, allowing it to monitor around 18 million devices.”
Much like the boiling frog metaphor, online privacy is eroded one degree at a time, without most people noticing the temperature shift. For example while it would have been controversial fifteen years ago, most people are currently ok with letting companies track absolutely everything we view (ISP deep packet inspection) and everywhere we go (location data tracking and sales). Still, the marketing industry occasionally pushes into territory that just creeps everybody out (like cable boxes that watch you). But what creeps everybody out today can and usually does become the new normal of tomorrow.