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That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You're Watching on TV (nytimes.com) 98

Rick Zeman writes: The New York Times (may be paywalled) has an article describing how some apps track TV and movie viewing even when the loaded app isn't currently active. These seemingly innocuous games, geared towards both adults and children work by "using a smartphone's microphone. For instance, Alphonso's software can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see. The information can then be used to target ads more precisely...." While these apps, mostly available on Google play, with some available on the Apple Store, do offer an opt opt, it's not clear when consumers see "permission for microphone access for ads," it may not be clear to a user that, "Oh, this means it's going to be listening to what I do all the time to see if I'm watching 'Monday Night Football."'
One advertising executive summarizes thusly: "It's not what's legal. It is what's not creepy."

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That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You're Watching on TV

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Gosh, running proprietary software on your computers comes with great risk? Yeah, that sounds like an important news story .. from maybe 20 years ago.

    • good fucking luck escaping it Stallman.

    • Gosh, running proprietary software on your computers comes with great risk? Yeah, that sounds like an important news story .. from maybe 20 years ago.

      At no prior time in history have "legitimate" storefronts offered such a massive array of harmful software.

      The problem is perverse incentives and associated market failure directly resulting from app store environment.

  • Not on an iPhone (Score:4, Informative)

    by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:30PM (#55829071)

    Bears repeating but on the iPhone you have to explicitly allow microphone access, and even if you granted that to a game for some reason, if it had the microphone on there would be a big indicator atop the top of the screen indicating recording was active.

    • by green1 ( 322787 )

      Not on Android either, you have to explicitly grant Microphone permission (it even says so right in the summary!)

      Of course many people are too stupid to think that if they allow microphone permission that the app might actually listen to the microphone.....

      • Not on Android either, you have to explicitly grant Microphone permission (it even says so right in the summary!)

        In the past at least, you had to accept a whole bag of permissions at once for an app on Android. I think that's still the case for some older phones, does Android now ask for only the microphone permission when the app tries to use it? Or do you still agree up-front to a set of permissions that might include Microphone without you noticing?

        Beyond that though, I'm pretty sure Android does not h

        • by Qzukk ( 229616 )

          You agree to a list of permissions up-front, plus any that future auto-updates add, but in recent versions of android (which not all phones get) you can go to the settings and disable individual permissions after the fact, along with a warning that the app may stop working if you do so.

          • by green1 ( 322787 )

            Your information is several years out of date. On "newer" versions of Android (basically any phone made in the past 3-4 years) it will individually ask for the microphone permission the first time you use it, and you will have to specifically click "allow" on the microphone permission before it can do so. You can also go to settings and disable the individual permission after the fact, and there will be no warning that the app may stop working because the apps are simply expected to handle that.

            • Your information is several years out of date. On "newer" versions of Android (basically any phone made in the past 3-4 years)

              Let's correct a common misconception to help open a few eyes; there's a few grim reasons for the "out of date" statement... it's not that out of date. Here's the gist of what turned out to be a long post:
              "Android has had granular permissions for a while" only affects people on Android 6 (Nov 2015) and newer. It's just December 2017. Most people repeating the factoid also don't tend to consider that there's only a near-coinflip chance (46 versus 54 per hundred) that their Android-wielding listener lacks that

        • by green1 ( 322787 )

          If your OS is newer than a few years old it will ask for the permission individually when the app first tries to make use of it. You can also revoke it at any time through the settings menu.

      • Re:Not on an iPhone (Score:4, Informative)

        by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @02:46PM (#55829547)

        Of course many people are too stupid to think that if they allow microphone permission that the app might actually listen to the microphone.....

        According to TFA, the app can listen even when it is inactive. Plenty of non-stupid people were likely unaware of that.

        • According to TFA, the app can listen even when it is inactive. Plenty of non-stupid people were likely unaware of that.

          You've gotta be pretty dumb to trust an icon, or even to not be skeptical of an LED.

          • You've gotta be pretty dumb to trust an icon, or even to not be skeptical of an LED.

            Totally. You should only trust things that you have assembled from sub-atomic particles using the power of your own mind. Anything less and you are trusting that the evil ones have not subverted the purity of your essence! /sarc

            At some point either you trust or you do without.

            • At some point either you trust or you do without.

              Or you assume your phone is listening in on you, and act accordingly. Sometimes that means doing without; if I want to have a private conversation, I don't involve a phone, and I don't do it within earshot of a friend's alexa or what have you.

        • by green1 ( 322787 )

          How would you know if an app is active or not? Anyone "non-stupid" assumes that ALL apps are active ALL the time. There's no "Exit" feature

          • How would you know if an app is active or not?

            Enable and then turn on "developer options". Then "running services." It is fascinating. Accuweather has four continuously running services. The stock "file manager" runs one. The United Airlines app has a "Beacon Service". The Nook app has four. Firefox has a service it runs.

            The most egregious are "google", which has upwards of a dozen system services. You can try killing "location manager" and it will almost instantly come back, even if you have location services off. Very curious. Many other apps have

    • by tsa ( 15680 )

      So? What if Whatsapp does this? Knowing the people at FB I would be surprised if they hadn't at least thought of this.

    • Android needs this feature badly. I assume there's one for the camera as well? (Not an iPhone user)

      Both platforms need OS-level toggles for camera/mic, similar to the one for location. They can even dummy-proof it a little by allowing the native phone app to ignore it, and maybe even allowing other apps to read the setting so they can pop a warning if need be.

      • Both platforms need OS-level toggles for camera/mic, similar to the one for location.

        Why care if an app tracks your location when Google themselves are constantly doing so? You can turn off "location" at the "OS" level, but that doesn't stop the location service from running all the time.

    • Block network access on apps which don't need it (like most games). This prevents any data being sent back to the app's mothership, not just microphone data. Both iOS [cultofmac.com] and Android [makeuseof.com] allow you to block specific apps from using cellular data (on the premise of preventing data hog apps from using up your monthly data quota).

      On Android you can go a step further and control which individual apps can use cellular data, WiFi for LAN access, or WiFi for Internet access. It may require root though. AFWall+ [google.com] is on
    • by reanjr ( 588767 )

      Yeah, same thing on Android. So, what's your point?

  • Even getting to the options is optional

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:37PM (#55829117)

    Early in the personal computing revolution, consumer computing devices answered to their owners, and life was good.

    In the intervening decades via millions of separate choices made by billions of separate mindless consumers, people have voted en-masse to give control of their computing devices to multinational companies, and any data-broker who wants it. They voted to disempower themselves, and give that power to surveillance capitalism companies, even when there were other good choices. They drove the good choices out of the market.

    That inevitably means that control will not be used for their benefit. Modern computing is a clusterfuck because too few people chose wisely, and too many chose unwisely. The unwise dictated the market, because they were numerous. The wise are swept along against their will, struggling to avoid the worst of the stupidity.

    The sheep have done everything in their power to steer the flock towards the looming precipice.

    • by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:57PM (#55829251) Journal
      Or, as I've said many times in the past: Computers used to be fun. Not so much anymore.

      There's going to be a fork in the road, somewhere up ahead. We may never even really notice it. The right-hand path will take us to a place where there are strict controls and laws protecting people's privacy, giving them control over their data. The left-hand path will continue down the road we're currently on, where there are more and more data breaches, more and more surveillance in all aspects of our lives, and the people, becoming dumber and dumber, will trade what's left of their privacy and freedom for more 'conveniences', like the native Americans trading away Manhattan for a few baubles. Those of us who never fell for the 'smartphone' meme will be looked upon even more so as freaks, conspiracy theorists, and at worst, criminals trying to hide alleged illegal activities, when all it is we want is some core of our lives left private, not constantly under the microscope of public, corporate, and government scutiny.

      There's still a small chance that people will wake up, suddenly seeing what's been going on, experience an epiphany about what it is they've given up, and they may demand it back. Assuming that is that it's not too late to do anything about it. We'll see I guess. Of course it'll be a race to the bottom, between overreaching surveillance and spying on everyone, War to End All Wars, and human-caused global climate change, to see which one finally destroys our civilization and our species. Not sure we can stop any one of them.
      • by mikael ( 484 )

        > Or, as I've said many times in the past: Computers used to be fun. Not so much anymore.

        Amen.

        We have just piled layer and layer of software on top of hardware with these smartphones; Android is built on top of Linux, X-windows, EGL, GLES (OpenGL) from UNIX workstations. Add on all sorts of sensors like cameras, microphones, accelerometers, GPS, thermometers, barometers, hydrometers. Advertising agencies are prepared to pay for access to all that data in order to aggregate it and do data mining. Even if

      • There's still fun to be had with computers, if you know where to look -- like in the microcontroller scene, for instance.

        It's mostly just when machines get exposed to the internet that all joy is sucked out of them.

        • The 'fun' computers I used to own were all hand built by yours truly and were based on microprocessors that aren't even as powerful as current tech microcontrollers. I had much more fun with a 6MHz Z80B and 64kB of RAM, CP/M, and a C compiler than I've ever had playing with anything since my first XT clone. Of course these days I don't come home and play with any hardware anymore unless something is broken and I don't write software because there's just no point and frankly I'd rather be physically active o
          • I had much more fun with a 6MHz Z80B and 64kB of RAM, CP/M, and a C compiler than I've ever had playing with anything since my first XT clone.

            Me too.

            But electronics in general has also become much less 'fun' because all the new and hot hardware requires you to spin a whole multi-layer PCB just to get it up and running in the most basic ways.

            This isn't even remotely accurate. What is true is that you have to learn a new soldering technique to solder SMDs -- but once you learn it, it's easy.

            You really can't go very far with perfboard and a soldering iron anymore, not like you used to.

            Yes, you really can. Honestly, I do it all the time.

            Also the days of surplus stores is long gone, and much of my materials came from such places.

            Yes, true, and that's a very sad thing. However, there are heaping piles of discarded electronics to be had for cheap, and you can cannibalize. And what you can't cannibalize, you can buy new for cheap online.

            There seems to be little to discover, and the younger generation seems to turn their nose up at anything that isn't strictly digital.

            This is also not true. The hobbyist electronics world looked like it was dead for a while the

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I think it's important to point out exactly how this happened. It's interesting that in this example story (which is really just one among thousands) the security breach came from a game.

      Think back to when you first saw computers that were made to directly work against the interests of their owners. Take some time.

      Was it a game console? My bet is yes. You may or may not have had specifically one of these devices, but I think THIS [wikipedia.org] was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of personal computers, and

      • why post this AC? oh i get it!

        Seriously though, well written and succinct. The thing you didn't touch on was the convenience factor. People have decided that they'd trade a bit of privacy (hey, it's all aggregate and not PII!) for 'free' stuff like gmail. And it is pretty hard to compete with 'free' (quotes intentional).

        It's like Walmart writ large -- Walmart caters to people who's biggest differentiator for a purchase is price. Well, it turns out that that represents such a large majority of consumers,

      • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

        You hinted at it, but didn't quite get there.

        This started long before Nintendo. This started when Bill Gates had the bright idea to not sell DOS to IBM, but to "license" it. That was when we stepped from buying a product, to thinking we bought it, but legally only renting it.

      • Think back to when you first saw computers that were made to directly work against the interests of their owners.

        For me, the introduction of the Macintosh was the first time I noticed the problem.

    • and you get our current state in the US. :(
  • App rules (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JohnFen ( 1641097 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:40PM (#55829141)

    First rule: don't install any apps that you don't have a strong need to install, and particularly avoid games.

    Second rule: don't install games.

    Third rule: install and use a firewall to prevent any app from communicating to the internet, unless internet access is needed for the app's primary purpose and you really can't live without it.

    Fourth rule: marketers are evil scum, and are getting more evil and scummier as time goes on.

    Fifth rule: don't install games

    • Re:App rules (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @02:09PM (#55829341) Journal
      How about Rule Zero: Don't have a smartphone in the first place.

      You do know that right out of the box, never even having done so much as made a normal voice phone call on it, your smartphone was already compromised, right? Likely installed right at the factory, before it was even boxed up to ship to you, or rooted by your wireless carrier before it was handed to you. Even if none of that is true, there's so many browser-based exploits out there for smartphones that you basically can't avoid it, and that's just the normal citizen-criminals I'm talking about, not the mass surveillance machine of three-letter government agencies and their specifically-written code. Before you dismiss me as a crackpot paranoid conspiracy theorist, I suggest you reseach news stories from various sources over the last 5 years. Plenty of revelations from researchers and whistle-blowers about what can and can't be done to a smartphone to turn it into a surveillance device. And, since the wireless companies lock down the core code and OS running your phone, there's literally nothing you can do to effectively secure a smartphone the way you could secure a desktop computer; you're literally not allowed to, for most all intents and purposes. Yes, I suppose if you're a developer-level software engineer and can break into your phone at the bootloader level, completely rewrite you phone's core OS with code you've personally vetted, then you can secure it any way you want. But if you can do that then you're in a minority, a tiny fraction of a percent. But that doesn't help everyone else. For most, the line from the old movie Wargames applies: The only way to win the game is to not play.

      ..and, no, I don't have a smartphone.
      • by gnick ( 1211984 )

        How about Rule Zero: Don't have a smartphone in the first place.

        You do know that right out of the box, never even having done so much as made a normal voice phone call on it, your smartphone was already compromised, right?

        Or accept the fact that it's compromised but still useful. If you want 100% security, then yes, Wargames. Most of us trade greatly increased capability for slightly reduced security.

        • But see your 'slightly compromised security' can't be quantified; it's a known unknown, and worse, the threats themselves are unknown unknowns. This really brings it to the point of being a binary proposition; you're either completely secured or you're completely unsecured because you can't get anywhere near an accurate read on the level of threat or even the form the threat(s) will take.
          • If you have to cast the situation in such binary terms, then it's easy: you're always completely unsecured in everything you do. Not just with smartphones.

      • Anything and everything you do and own that interacts with the outside world is a security risk. There is no such thing as "secure" in an absolute sense. So, everything involves a tradeoff between utility and security, and what balance between the two is acceptable is a very subjective thing that can only be decided for yourself.

        If your comfort level is such that smart phones aren't acceptable, that's fine. But it's also fine for those of us who are comfortable striking a different balance. My "rules" are s

    • by gnick ( 1211984 )

      First rule: don't install any apps that you don't have a strong need to install, and particularly avoid games.

      There's not much I need. I'm not sure I have a "strong need" for anything. But there's a lot that I like and that improve my experience interacting with my phone. I'm a big fan of Words With Friends (Scrabble).

      Second rule: don't install games.

      If I had to dump either the phone-call function or Words, I'd probably stop making calls. They're not that important and I enjoy playing Words with some of my high school buddies.

      Third rule: install and use a firewall to prevent any app from communicating to the internet, unless internet access is needed for the app's primary purpose and you really can't live without it.

      Playing online is Words's primary purpose. It's not something I "can't live without", but being essential for survival seem

  • by Alain Williams ( 2972 ) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:43PM (#55829165) Homepage

    These things are also, presumably, chewing up your internet usage for some purpose that you have not agreed to. Likewise a running app will use processor and thus run your battery down. Both of these cost you in one way for another; the cost is part of the app writer's gain (when they sell the information, whatever) - so you are paying for part of their profit -- all without you knowing!

    This falls fair & square in the area of computer misuse.

  • by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Friday December 29, 2017 @01:45PM (#55829177) Homepage

    Just read all the dark Science Fiction story out there and you'll see that they come true while we are diverting further and further away from the bright future depicted in Star Trek and similar.

    Max Headroom, 1984, Brave New World, THX1138, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Running Man, Neuromancer, Logan's Run, The Dispossessed, Altered Carbon, A Clockwork Orange, Earthworks (Aldiss), The Wasp Factory, Darwin's Radio, The Stars My Destination, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Lem), After the Flood (P.C Jersild [wikipedia.org]), The Trial (Kafka), Hyperion (Dan Simmons) to mention a few that are more or less dark.

    Trivia: I did meet P.C. Jersild once when he had lost the book he was working on due to a computer malfunction, I was able to recover it.

    • Yeah. and The Handmaids Tale and Atlas Shrugged are meant to be cautionary tales, too; but you'll notice that certain socio-political groups are trying to use them as instruction manuals. :-(
    • we are diverting further and further away from the bright future depicted in Star Trek

      Hell, even the modern crop of Star Trek movies have diverted away from that.

  • 1. i dont have any games on my smartphone
    and
    2. i dont ever watch TV, i find TV far too annoying to watch anymore so i quit, the TV sits in the corner like an abandoned & condemned building waiting demolition
  • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
    For all the complaints about iOS, the early versions that closed all background applications now sounds like a good idea. If you didn't open it, don't run it.

    Also, an app-invisible spoofing should be kernel level. Every app gets access to everything it asks for and is granted on install, then the user can select what to spoof. "always feed the microphone white noise for any game that requests microphone access". Pokemon Go simply refused to load when "developer tools" was loaded. As I use the GPS sp
    • In fairness, Pokemon Go's gameplay is entirely about your real world coordinates (determined by GPS). It's as a reasonable for that specific game to request access as Maps or a geocaching app.

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        The access to GPS was reasonable. Disabling the game if "developer's tools" was enabled prevented the game running on many devices. Why can't I have USB root access enabled at the same time as Pokemon Go? So I gave up Pokemon Go, because they were unreasonable.
        • IIRC, developer's tools includes a GPS spoofing option. I get that it's an annoying restriction, but I also understand that they were making a huge bet on GPS enabled gameplay. Anything that cast a doubt on really using the GPS was a pretty high risk.

          • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
            Yes, but I have scripts and things that need consistent mounting of the USB as a drive. Android loves to ask after you tell it not to ask, and other things, but if you put it in developer mode, thins just work.

            I understood what they did and why, but it eliminated the game for many people.
  • Okay; so I'm going to have to question the plausibility of this one... not because I don't think that the media moguls and other statistics happy people out there aren't interested in collecting this data on us, but rather, because I'm skeptical of just how fruitful such a venture might be. Consider the scenario being described: The situation is, you're watching TV and playing a game on your phone at the same time. Of course, many of us probably do exactly that now and then -- but when that happens, how oft

    • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

      A) Don't underestimate the level of stupidity. Consider all the times you go to Amazon to purchase product X, then you start getting popup adds for product X. (Which you're not going to buy....BECAUSE YOU JUST FUGGIN BOUGHT IT!!)

      B) Don't underestimate the level of creepy that the targeting firms are willing to stoop to. I worked for a targeting firm for a year. Creepy is the CEO proclaiming his pride at our products sending a car add to a person's cell phone, and then tracking that phone as it entered a

      • But nothing you've said mitigates my commentary, about false positives corrupting the accuracy of the collected data.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.

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