Tech company Alphonso TV is in the spotlight this week, following a report about the company's ability to "listen" to the television shows and ads that play in consumers' living rooms.
Alphonso gathers information about the TV programs people watch by accessing microphones that come with consumers' smartphones. Those microphones pick up very brief sound snippets from tv programs and ads. CEO Ashish Chordia tells MediaPost that the snippets are immediately fingerprinted and matched to the original content. Any fingerprints that don't match known TV shows or ads are immediately discarded, he says. He says the fingerprinting occurs on the phone, and that only the digital "signature" -- and not the actual audio file -- is sent to Alphonso.
The information about which programs and ads were shown to consumers is used for analytics, and also for retargeting TV ads to digital devices -- a process Chordia describes as "finding folks who have actually seen TV ads and amplifying them."
The software is able to access phones' microphones through downloaded apps, like the gaming app Pocket Bowling 3D. Currently, the company's software is installed in around 1,000 apps, Chordia says.
While the 4-year-old company's technology is garnering media attention, it is also raising privacy concerns centering on the potential intrusiveness of eavesdropping in people's homes.
Alphonso isn't alone in raising these concerns. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission sent letters to 12 app developers that embedded SilverPush -- a tracking software that can monitor people's television use by embedding "audio beacons" in TV ads. The FTC told those developers not to use the listening technology without first informing consumers.
Chordia says his company's technology complies with the FTC's guidance. He adds that the apps with Alphonso software are required to specifically ask consumers for permission to access their microphones. For instance, when users install the Pocket Bowling 3D app, a pop-up screen says the app would like to access the microphone. "This app uses audio to detect TV ads and content and shows appropriate mobile ads," the message reads. Users can then choose whether or not to allow microphone access.
Consumers who refuse to give permission may still use the app. What's more, consumers who initially allow the app to access the microphone can later change their mind and opt out at Alphonso's site.
But those steps may not be enough to quell privacy concerns. Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at the watchdog Consumers Union, and a former staffer at the FTC, suggested to The New York Times that companies should go beyond typical disclosures if they collect data in unexpected ways.
“When you see ‘permission for microphone access for ads,’ it may not be clear to a user that, Oh, this means it’s going to be listening to what I do all the time to see if I’m watching ‘Monday Night Football,’” Brookman told The Times. “They need to go above and beyond and be careful to make sure consumers know what’s going on.”
For his part, Chordia says the company's disclosures are more than adequate. "If you are telling someone this app is going to use a microphone and listen to TV ... and they have to make a decision, yes or no, I think it's pretty clear to the consumer what's happening," he says.