Cell Phone 'Snooping' Features... Newer Smartphone Apps are Activating Phone Microphones Without the User's Knowledge!
As technology progresses one critical facet of life has been impacted from a variety of perspectives... privacy. ~ Leigh Goessl
Privacy has long been an important value to many, but as technology evolves and increasingly becomes more entrenched in daily living, often convenience trumps privacy.
It's one thing when a consumer chooses convenience over privacy when determining which technology devices and features to use, but its another thing entirely when its done either without their knowledge, or simply lack of shared enlightenment to features.
Such appears to be the case with some popular cell phone apps.
• New Class of 'Nosey' Apps
Mike Elgan, Computerworld, illuminates in his article "Snooping, it's not a crime, it's a feature" how a new class of smartphone apps are now activating mobile phone microphones without the user's knowledge.
The companies creating the apps claim this is not a bug, but a feature. How it works is the smartphone app uses 'ambient sounds' to determine what their users are paying attention to, and then activates the microphone.
Elgan reports that a recently released podcast called This Week in Tech shows how it works and reveals the three apps that automatically activate the microphone.
The apps seemingly do not discriminate where they'll snoop, the programs will click on at home, in the office, at a store, or anywhere else you may happen to be.
This new generation of apps differs from other older apps that have used microphones, such as HappyWakeUp, and SoundHound, because in the past, users were fully aware being those programs carried the purpose to work with a phone's microphone being turned on.
• Privacy Concerns
Being the newer apps turn on by themselves without the user necessarily knowing, it is not hard to see how this can be considered a serious infringement of privacy.
Consider Shopkick, this device turns on whenever participating stores are entered, and "listens through your cellphone for inaudible sounds generated in the stores by a special device."
App companies claim the sounds they 'collect' are not audible sounds, and even if this the case, it still opens up the gateway for a flood of futuristic possibilities that perhaps collect audible sounds. Currently sounds 'heard' are uploaded to a server and compared with patterns collected elsewhere.
The question begs asking that if this practice is accepted, will companies push the envelope more and make it more identifiable?
It is not hard to comprehend commercial temptation to utilize this information in order to more directly and effectively target consumers and then subsequently kick it up a notch or two.
The real-time information that can be collected through smartphone apps is a strong enticement and one that retailers may not be able to resist.
While these apps that activate microphones may or may not seem harmless depending on one's viewpoint, the practice itself is a very slippery slope. Even those users buying into the 'inaudible' promotion may ultimately find themselves looking at the practice differently in the next generation of apps.
• A Marketer's Dream, but Society's Nightmare?
According to Elgan, "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."
Adding additional real-time movement to these already known facts can eventually turn out to be a privacy nightmare. For decades people have been concerned about 'Big Brother' watching, and in some ways, it's already here, in the form of commercial marketing combined with technology.
Leigh Goessl - April 17, 2011 - Helium