Are Your Apps Monitoring Your TV-Viewing Behavior?

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned that some apps may have the ability to listen to your television-viewing habits without your knowledge.

The FTC last week issued "warning letters (PDF)" to a dozen Android app developers, claiming that they may be using software, known as Silverpush, to monitor users television-viewing habits. If found to be doing so intentionally, the FTC wrote, the developers could be in violation of the FTC Act and face penalties.

According to the FTC, Silverpush is software bundled with a mobile application that uses a device's built-in microphone. From there, the app listens for "audio beacons" that are emitted by television programming and humans cannot hear. By collecting those beacons, the FTC claims, Silverpush could produce a "detailed log of the television content viewed while a user's mobile device was turned on for the purpose of targeted advertising and analytics."

Indeed, Silverpush on its own is not necessarily an issue. In fact, it could be used as a way for television content producers and marketers to gather more data about the programming people are watching and the kind of advertising they might respond most effectively to.

The FTC appears to particularly take issue with how the apps function. While listening to a person's television viewing doesn't necessarily violate laws, not telling them that they're doing so is an issue, FTC's consumer protection chief Jessica Rich said in a statement.

"These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them," Rich said. "Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it's shared with."

The FTC published the letters it has sent to the dozen, unidentified app developers. The letters say that while the creators of Silverpush claim their beacons are not embedded into any U.S. television programming, app developers nonetheless must inform their users about their use of a device's microphone -- something the FTC claims they're not doing right now.

"We would encourage you to disclose this fact to potential customers, empowering them to make an informed decision about what information to disclose in exchange for using your application."

For now, the FTC has only reached out to Android app makers. Since Silverpush is not known to be in use in the U.S. right now, it's unlikely that there are many apps using the technology. Still, the FTC is watching.

"Commission staff will continue to monitor your mobile application in the coming months," the FTC's letter to app developers says.

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