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Some of the games that consumers download come with something a little extra. They are loaded with software by a start-up company called Alphonso that collects data, ostensibly about people’s television-watching habits. But the method it uses to collect these data has raised some eyebrows, as well as some essential questions about privacy and access rights.

Alphonso uses the microphone on the smartphones to which its games have been downloaded to collect the audio being broadcast in the room. Thus it can identify which shows people watch on their televisions, what movie they go to see in the theater, and where they were (e.g., at a store or at home) when they heard a particular advertisement. As long as the app is open, regardless of whether the user is actually playing the game, the software can collect the audio information.

When they download any games with the Alphonso software contained within it, consumers agree to the monitoring. However, its continued data collection, even when the smartphone is put away in a user’s pocket, seems like an overreach to some observers. Furthermore, many of the games that feature the software target children, suggesting that the most vulnerable consumers are being targeted too, in ways that they might not be able to understand sufficiently to offer their true consent.

The Federal Trade Commission has established some rules regarding such audio collections, noting that consumers must be made fully aware of the practice. But simple agreements or mentions of “permission for microphone access” might not be sufficient to allow customers to understand the reach of the access. Alphonso maintains that its opt-in and opt-out policies are clear and straightforward.

It also highlights that its technology explicitly does not collect human speech, such that conversations among friends are not part of the data it collects. But it still knows what users have exhibited some interest in, such that it is possible that the advertising that shows up on their social media feeds directly reflects their most recent viewing habits. Such insights and capabilities are not limited to games either; smart televisions increasingly can gather these data too. Can consumers make any choices in private anymore, and if not, is that a problem?

Discussion Question:

  1. What are the ethical concerns associated with using audio data collected from smartphone microphones to inform advertising?

Source: Sapna Maheshwari, “That Game on Your Phone Might Be Tracking What You’re Watching on TV,” The New York Times, December 28, 2017