A recent scandal has broken in the news, reporting that certain smartphone games downloaded via the Google Play Store are listening to you through your microphone. Perhaps even more strangely, the apps aren’t listening to what you are saying; they are listening to your TV, computer, or whichever device you use to consume media. The apps even listen through the microphone while not in use.
The apps use microphone access to collect data on “what shows you watch, which ads you hear, and even what movies you see,” according to The Verge. This is a particularly shady practice, especially considering the Federal Trade Commission has warned companies against undisclosed data collection. In 2016, it even forced certain developers to notify users.
A report in The New York Times identified more than 250 games on the Google Play Store that include a “specific type of software for monitoring users’ TV habits.” It was developed by a company called Alphonso. When apps use Alphonso’s software – or when they admit to it – it’s often without clarity. They hide their disclosure in the application description, always beneath the option to “read more.” And, as you might guess, it is very easy to miss that warning.
Some apps are a bit more forward. For example, according to The Verge, a game called Endless 9*9 puzzle by Imobile Game Studios asks for location and microphone access once installed, with no explanation as to why this information is needed. It’s only when you go into the game settings that the app discloses tracking “TV viewership details” in order to “show you TV related content and ads.” Because it does not say this when asking for access, users don’t truly consent to the practice.
So how should users be notified? The FTC has some suggested guidelines. As The Verge explains, “the commission has said that only including disclosures in, say, a YouTube video description isn’t acceptable, since not every viewer may see it. Since people can download these games without viewing the disclosure, the same issues could come up here.” Basically, the notification needs to be viewed by everyone downloading the app in a clear and unmistakable fashion.
Although more apps using the Alphonso software run through the Google Play Store, some do exist for iOS as well. If you’d like to double check to see which 250 games run Alphonso, the list is available here.