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Your Phone Is Listening

17 April 2011 No Comment

Snooping: It’s not a crime, it’s a feature


New apps hijack the microphone in your cell phone to listen in on your life

Originally posted by Mike Elgan - Computerworld

 

 

The issue was brought to the world’s attention recently on a podcast called This Week in Tech. Host Leo Laporte and his panel shocked listeners by unmasking three popular apps that activate your phone’s microphone to collect sound patterns from inside your home, meeting, office or wherever you are.

The apps are ColorShopkick and IntoNow, all of which activate the microphones in users’ iPhone or Android devices in order to gather contextual information that provides some benefit to the user.

Color uses your iPhone’s or Android phone’s microphone to detect when people are in the same room. The data on ambient noise is combined with color and lighting information from the camera to figure out who’s inside, who’s outside, who’s in one room, and who’s in another, so the app can auto-generate spontaneous temporary social networks of people who are sharing the same experience.

Shopkick works on both iPhone and Android devices. One feature of the app is to reward users for simply walking into participating stores, which include Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, American Eagle Outfitters, Sports Authority, Crate & Barrel and many others. Users don’t have to press any button. Shopkick listens through your cellphone for inaudible sounds generated in the stores by a special device.

IntoNow is an iOS app that allows social networking during TV shows. The app listens with your iPhone or iPad to identify what you’re watching. The company claims 2.6 million “broadcast airings” (TV shows or segments) in its database. A similar app created for fans of the TV show Grey’s Anatomyuses your iPad’s microphone to identify exactly where you are in the show, so it can display content relevant to specific scenes.

While IntoNow is based on the company’s own SoundPrint technology, theGrey’s Anatomy app is built on Nielsen’s Media-Sync platform.

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.

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