The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to twelve Android app developers that they are violating the FTC Act by using technology that can surreptitiously listen to audio signals from TVs to create profiles of what their users are watching.
The twelve companies are using technology from SilverPush, an Indian-based company that claimed that its software doesn’t target U.S. citizens. Silverpush’s technology listens to embedded signals in television ads that are inaudible to humans, to discover who is seeing what ads.
The FTC’s main problem with this technology is that the developers embedded it into their apps without disclosing it to their users. Another problem is that the audio tracking can run even when the app that contains the tracking code isn’t open.
The FTC is also picking on the developers for asking for microphone access when the apps don’t have any features that would use it:
“For example, the code is configured to access the device’s microphone to collect audio information even when the application is not in use. Moreover, your application requires permission to access the mobile device’s microphone prior to install, despite no evident functionality in the application that would require such access,” said the FTC in a letter to the twelve Android app developers.
It seems that the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) was the one to warn the FTC about SilverPush’s tracking technology last fall. In its own letter to the FTC, the CDT complained that users also don’t have an option to opt out of this cross-device tracking.
“These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it’s shared with,” she added.
It doesn’t look like the FTC will punish the companies for this behavior for now, but it will watch to see if they continue to avoid disclosure about the tracking technology to their customers. The agency also didn’t want to name who the twelve companies were.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.