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Can Your Smartphone Use Your Microphone, Camera to Gather Data? Yes.


"It's the next best thing to reading your mind."

"Bugs" are usually reserved for spy movies and FBI stings. Not creepy crawly bugs, but rather the secret listening devices stashed under a desk or in a heating vent. But what if you carried a "bug" with you every day? You just may. According to a new report, some new smartphone apps are using your phones microphone and camera to gather creepy data.

Computerworld reports that "a new class of smartphone app has emerged that uses the microphone built into your phone as a covert listening device," and app makers are selling it as a feature. "It's the next best thing to reading your mind," the outlet says.

It explains which apps are eavesdropping:

The apps are Color, Shopkick 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 Anatomy uses your iPad's microphone to identify exactly where you are in the show, so it can display content relevant to specific scenes.

The apps try to sidestep any privacy concerns by saying they only record sound patterns, not actual sounds. Comforting? In the end, the technology is there, and it's being used to some extent. Used for "marketing gold" to be exact. Computerwold explains what gathering ambient noise can actually tell companies about you:

  • Your gender, and the gender of people you talk to.
  • Your approximate age, and the ages of the people you talk to.
  • What time you go to bed, and what time you wake up.
  • What you watch on TV and listen to on the radio.
  • How much of your time you spend alone, and how much with others.
  • Whether you live in a big city or a small town.
  • What form of transportation you use to get to work.

Still, there are popular apps -- such as the music sleuth one called Shazam -- which have used a phone's mic for years. But that is usually an overt feature that must be activated. As Computerworld notes, "The new apps are often sneakier about it. The vast majority of people who use the Color app, for example, have no idea that their microphones are being activated to gather sounds."

In the end, this seems to be a case of paying attention to the fine print. "Most app makers disclose much of what they gather, including audio data, but they often do so either on their websites or buried somewhere in the legal mumbo jumbo," Computerworld notes.

The advise seems to be, "listen up."

We know the apps are.

(The entire Computerworld article is worth a read here.)

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