That innocent-looking mobile game you just downloaded might just have an ulterior motive. Behind the scenes, hundreds of different apps could be using your smartphone's microphone to figure out what you watch on TV, a new report from The New York Times reveals. Here's what you need to know about these eavesdropping apps and what you can do to stop them.
What's Actually Happening Here?
Basically, a bunch of apps with innocuous names like "Pocket Bowling 3D" include extra software that's designed to listen for recognisable audio from your TV, including specific shows and commercials.
According to the fine print, this software can't understand or record human speech, and any recordings it does make are stored locally on your device. Then it scrambles those recordings before checking to see if they match up with other content and use information to serve you more relevant ads.
Alphonso is one company that provides this type of service to app-developers. It's partnered with at least 250 Android apps, according to a search of the Google Play Store, and also appears in some iOS apps (there's no way to search for it in Apple's App Store). The company also told the Times that its software is running on about 1,000 different apps. That includes games, messaging services, and social media, so there's a decent chance that you already have one of these apps on your phone.
How to Spot One of These Apps
The easiest way to catch an eavesdropping app is by checking its listing page in the iOS App Store or Google Play. Every app that partners with a service like Alphonso has to disclose it in the main description. Usually, that's buried at the end of the text, and you may have to click "more" to see it.
If you've already downloaded an app but you don't trust it, you can check its permissions to find out what it's up to. For iOS, go into the main Settings menu and then tap on the app in question to see what it can access. If that includes microphone, it may be snooping on you.
The process on Android is very similar, but with a few extra steps. First open Settings, then select Apps, and tap on the app you're curious about. Finally, scroll down to Permissions and select it to see what the app has access to on your phone.
You can also check directly within some apps. For example, Pocket Bowling 3D, which uses Alphonso software, offered access to the permission from its own settings menu. However, it couldn't turn on the permission without rerouting you to Apple's main Settings app first.
Pocket Bowling 3D
How to Disable Microphone Access
All of these apps need to get your permission before they can record in the background. So the easiest way is just to deny that permission. However, it's possible that you might approved the request without realising it, or your kid might do it while playing with your phone. In that case, switching it off is pretty easy.
Just head into Settings on your device and check the permissions for the app in question. If the app has microphone access when it doesn't need to (why would a bowling game need to use your microphone?), just toggle that permission off.
That's it. Now you can go back to virtual bowling (or whatever else you were doing) without having to worry about who or what might be listening in on your activity.