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Alphonso… The hidden app that records everything you say.

Alphonso… The hidden app that records everything you say.

It’s the stuff of science-fiction movies – you’re kicking back on the couch, mucking around on your phone while streaming Stranger Things or The Mandalorian. And all the while, an app is running the background recording and tracking your viewing habits and using that information combined with your location to serve you up ads.

 

people use their phones whilst watching tv and their phones could be used to listen to them or their tvs and serve them ads

Ever heard of Alphonso? The New York Times wrote a story about a data firm called Alphonso that does exactly this. Alphonso collects television viewing data via your smartphone’s microphone and on-sells that data to advertisers. Alphonso is tracking software that’s piggybacked onto free games and apps such as Beer Pong: Trickshot and Pool 3D. Remember all the terms you accepted when installing and starting the game? Yep, you gave the app permission to listen for audio cues from TV shows and commercials so they can monitor what you’re watching.

netflix and chill, or is your phone listening to you? Maybe not.

It’s hard to trust a company that claims it doesn’t listen to conversations, which is a half truth because according to their website they use “advanced fingerprinting technology to identify ads and programming airing on TV in a fraction of a second, in a completely anonymous fashion.”… so yeah, they listen to what you’re doing, anonymously.

The site calls it a TV Data Cloud and boasts that “40 million smart TVs, set-top boxes, mobile and living room devices with embedded Alphonso technology report viewership data in real time.”

The New York Times articles states that up to 250 games are “infected” with Alphonso and available from the Google Play store – with many of them targeted at children. The Alphonso CEO maintains that it’s all perfectly legal and that consumers can opt out. Which does require the consumer actually knowing about it in the first place.

Justin Brookman (of the advocacy group Consumers Union) told the Times that the nebulous nature of the opt-in notice doesn’t provide enough detail. “When you 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,” he said.

What’s Shazam got to do with all of this?

You know Shazam – the greatest app of them all that at the click of a button will identify a song for you. Well, Alphonso relieds on Shazam to identify clips stored in its “data cloud” with Shamzam then selling that data back to Alphonso… who then package the data and sells it to advertisers.

shazam isn't so nice after all as they sell their data to advertising and data agencies

#thisisgettingmurky

Alphonso claims that its software is running on a thousand different apps and games, so it’s quite possible you have one of more of them in your app library today.

The company said its software is running on about a thousand different apps and games, so it’s quite possible you have one or more of them in your library.

What to do next?

If you want to wrestle back control of your privacy on your phone, below are detailed instructions on how to review and revoke access for each of your apps.

you probably don't have to turn off your phone in order to stay safeYou don’t have to turn off your phone.

You’ll find some interesting apps that have access to different parts of your phone, such as the Google app which will have access to your calendar, physical activity and your call logs… Plenty of apps have access to your contacts and you’ll be staggered what has access to your microphone and camera.

Why would these apps need these permissions? Sometimes it makes sense. If you use Uber, then it’ll need to know your location and if you want to call your driver you’ll need telephone access. But does it need microphone access? No it doesn’t!

How to check if a phone has access to your microphone (or anything else)

check your phone permissions!

Android:

See all permissions for each app

For apps installed on your device

  1. On your Android device, open the Settings app Settings app.
  2. Tap Apps & notifications.
  3. Tap the app you want to update.
  4. Tap Permissions.
  5. Choose which permissions you want the app to have, like Camera or Phone.

For instant apps

  1. On your Android device, open the Settings app Settings app.
  2. Tap Apps & notifications which will show recently opened apps at the top.
  3. Tap the app you want to see more about.
  4. Look under Permissions.
See all apps installed on your device that can access particular permissions
  1. On your Android device, open the Settings app Settings app.
  2. Tap Apps & notifications.
  3. Tap Advanced and thenApp permissions.
  4. Select a permission, like CalendarLocation, or Phone.
  5. Choose which apps should have access to that permission.

For Apple/ios (with pictures!)

  • From the Settings app, tap Privacy to see all the permissions available on your phone.
  • Tap on any entry to see the apps granted those permissions.
  • Disable any permissions that are not needed. You can always grant them again later.

App privileges don’t have to be all or nothing: With Location Services, for example, you can decide whether apps can access to your location always, never, or just while you’re using the app. While Using the App means an app accesses your location only while the app is running and on-screen — when you switch to a different app, your location is no longer available.

  • For location data, you can grant access to an app all the time or only when the app is open.
  • With Apple Health data, you can grant an app access to some data and not others.
  • Scroll down the Settings screen beyond the Privacy menu for individual apps.
  • For the Cellular category, scroll down to the list of apps and toggle data access for specific apps on or off.
  • Tap on any app to access permissions, and some extra items, such as access to notifications and permission to use cellular data as well as Wi-Fi.
  • Tap on an option or toggle switch to grant or refuse permission.

You can also select which apps can use cellular and other data. This is helpful if you have a limited data plan and are trying to conserve it. Those apps that can’t use cellular data will only update and perform other tasks when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

 

With iOS, you can also choose to send diagnostic and usage data to Apple and have your usage tracked so that you only see advertising customized to your interests. In iOS 13, apps can continue to tell the OS that they want to use your location, but you will only get a single prompt for any app: Allow While Using App, the new Allow Once, or Don’t Allow. If you choose Allow Once, the app will prompt you whenever you launch it.

In addition to new, fine-grained controls that let you grant apps access to your location once or anytime you use it, iOS 13 will notify you when an app is using your location in the background, so you can decide whether to change your permissions. New controls also work to prevent apps from accessing your location without your consent via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. And now you can control whether you share your location when you share a photo snapped with your phone.