Is Your Favorite App Listening In?

Category: Mobile , Privacy

Recently I raised cautions about giving permissions to games, surveys, quizzes, and other apps that importune you on Facebook. They often abuse those privileges to spy upon you and your contacts. You may be avoiding them now, and you may have revoked the privileges that you gave to earlier ones. But Facebook is not the only source of sneaky, spying apps. Hundreds of popular apps for both Android and iOS have the ability to listen to what's happening around you. Here's how to identying those apps and turn off the spy components...

Opting Out of App Spying

If you missed my earlier ariticle “[ALERT] Facebook Surveys and Quizzes”, you might want to read that for background on why it's not a good idead to give away seemingly inconsequential information about yourself.

Until recently, Alphonso was a software company known only to app developers. Alphonso develops tracking tech, software that monitors users as they play games and follows them around online, reporting their travels and doings to advertisers. I got more incensed as I read what else Alphonso does.

Alphonso’s trackware uses the microphone of your smartphone to determine what you are watching on TV by identifying ultrasonic audio signals that advertisers embed in commercials and show producers sometimes bury in the shows themselves.

Alphonso-enabled apps are listening and spying

The listening tech can even tell where you are watching TV, i.e. in a bar, your living room, etc. It can tell what movie theater you visited to watch the latest Star Wars movie. And it runs in the background, so it's active whether you're using an affected app or not.

This highly personal data is bundled with other bits of data gleaned from your phone and shipped off to advertisers, where it becomes part of your “global record” of habits, preferences, and things you don’t even know about yourself. They call it "one-to-one TV ad retargeting, real-time TV campaign analytics and closed loop attribution for brands and agencies." Even though this technology helps software developers distribute free apps, it’s hard for me to like Alphonso.

Alphonso software is bundled with over 1000 apps. Beer Pong, Pool 3D, and Honey Quest are just a few of the better-known examples. One way to tell if an app uses Alphonso's "listening" technology is to read the full description of the app at the Google Play Store or Apple App Store on your phone. For the latter, you'll usually have to dig a little deeper, and view the app's privacy policy to find this information.

How to Alphonso App Spying

If you suspect an app may be using Alphonso technology, check the app's permissions. If it has permission to use the microphone, and you can't see any reason why, then you should modify the permissions or delete the app.

But to give this devil his due, in this case he tells you plainly and truthfully how to escape his clutches. Alphonso has published step-by-step instructions for turning off - “opting out of” - tracking by apps that employ its trackware. The company claims the high ground of “transparency,” but of course Alphonso is counting on human nature, which tends to leave default settings untouched. Alphonso’s trackware is enabled by default. Here is how to turn it off for Android and iOS (iPhone and iPad) devices:

Disable Alphonso for ANDROID

If you have Android 6 or later, you can deny access to specific permission settings for each app. (If your phone is running an older version of Android, the instructions below will not work.) To disable a single app’s use of your phone’s microphone:

  1. Open the Settings on your device
  2. Select Apps
  3. Select the app from the list
  4. Select Permissions
  5. Turn off access to the microphone for the app

To limit targeting of advertisements shown by an app:

  1. Open the Google Settings on your device
  2. Select Ads
  3. Select Opt Out of Ads Personalization

Disable Alphonso for APPLE IOS (iPhone and iPad)

To disable a single app’s use of your phone’s microphone:

  1. Open the Settings on your device
  2. Select Privacy
  3. Select Microphone
  4. Turn off access to microphone for the app

To limit targeting of advertisements shown by an app:

  1. Open the Settings on your device
  2. Select Privacy
  3. Select Advertising
  4. Select Limit Ad Tracking

If you're not sure which apps have permission to use the microphone, here's how to identify them. For Android, go to Apps & notifications, then App Permissions, then Microphone. For iPhone and iPad, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Microphone. You can tweak the permissions as desired there.

Note that none of the above will stop ads from being shown by an app, or even reduce the number of ads shown. What it does is “dumb down” the selection of ads for you by eliminating access to personalization data. You'll have to decide if you want ads that are relevant to your interests, or ads that are selected at random.

Note that this may also prevent certain features of the app from working as designed. For example, if you deny an app permission to the microphone, it won't be able to accept voice commands. It’s an unsatisfactory trade-off but it's the best we can do for now.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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This article was posted by on 10 Sep 2018

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Most recent comments on "Is Your Favorite App Listening In?"

Posted by:

Riccardo Capuano
10 Sep 2018

I have an android phone running Lollipop v5.0.1. Where do i find Apps & notifications? I can't find it anywhere.

Posted by:

agneta hayes
10 Sep 2018

I just want to say THANK YOU for your awesome articles! They have helped and guided me for years now. Keep up the good work, you are very much needed in this increasingly tech world:)

Posted by:

10 Sep 2018

It took me a while to find the Advertising tab on my iPhone. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the Privacy screen.

Posted by:

10 Sep 2018

I [also] just want to say THANK YOU for your awesome articles!
"It’s an unsatisfactory trade-off but it's the best we can do for now." Other options may include F-Droid apps (which do not mandate accepting any permissions) or possibly even refusal to own a smartphone, outright. Unless our desires for convenience includes a degree in geek and/or at least a 25 hour day.

Posted by:

Bob K
10 Sep 2018

I subscribe to a magazine that makes their issues available for reading via an app on a phone or tablet. But that app requires that it has not only access to my contact list, but also to all phone calls that I make, including who was called, and for how long.

I sure don't see a legitimate reason for that information to be made available.

I recently upgraded my phone, this one is running Android 7. In checking the app now, all permissions are showing as turned off. (Great!)

Posted by:

top squirrel
10 Sep 2018

Great article, though never having a Facebook account nor a smartphone nor ever playing a game limits its practical use for me.
What I could really use is how to disable targeted ads on Google and Yahoo. I thought I did it and followed all the instructions, but I looked at inversion tables on Wal-Mart recently and lately I'm being pelted by the very pages I viewed. Makes me feel like someone is breathing down my neck, which indeed they are. I would have ordered one already but for the annoyance.

Bob: I would love a piece on how to navigate Google's and Yahoo's (Oath's) opt outs. All I want to do is opt out of everything and after a lot of effort I thought I did just that.
Guess not. I may have neglected to cross a t or dot an i. Or maybe their instructions are the least bit nebulous. In any event I am running out of patience. And slide switches whose "off" or "no" positions say "pause" instead.

Posted by:

10 Sep 2018

Does this mean I have to give up my "okay Google" voice instructions on my cheap phone? Thanks for the instructions, Bob. More settings to investigate now. I'd have a decent cheap phone if only phones could be unlocked without the carrier's permission.

Posted by:

10 Sep 2018

If an app has access to your phone does it also mean use of the microphone? Oddly, some apps give both choices of microphone and phone.

Posted by:

Louis Toscano
10 Sep 2018

For most music streaming apps, disabling ads means disabling the app. If you cannot run a streaming app on your streaming device, even through your TV, then you have to go to all your browsers on your computer and disable any ad blocking service you have that might hinder that streaming app.

Posted by:

Norman Christopherson
10 Sep 2018

I can't find any of these settings on my Galaxy S8

Posted by:

11 Sep 2018

Try using Firefox instead and do your browsing in a private tab. Firefox has privacy settings you can enable that will cut down on ads. Don't do anything through Facebook.

Posted by:

Frederick Roller
11 Sep 2018

I followed your advice on my Essential phone and found that the Suduko app was listening and after disabling it, it asked to reinstate its access to the phone, messaging and my pictures(?)

Posted by:

11 Sep 2018

Another reason to stick with my "dumb" flip phone and do ALL my surfing on my Win 7 desktop with ESet Internet Security installed. Works for me!

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