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FTC Warns 12 Android Developers to Stop Eavesdropping on Unwitting Users

The trade watchdog has warned developers to stop quietly tracking users.

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

Image: Flickr/Japanexperterna.se

Your apps may be eavesdropping on you, and the Federal Trade Commission wants them to stop.

The US's trade watchdog issued warning letters to 12 app developers with 15 apps in the Google Play store for spying on unwitting users, asking them to disclose to customers that they are being tracked, FTC senior attorney Kristin Cohen confirmed to Motherboard. The Commission is not currently disclosing which developers or which apps were targeted with warning letters, Cohen said.

At issue is the use of software called SilverPush, which contains a unique "audio beacon" and commandeers a device's microphone to listen in for ambient sounds, inaudible to human ears, that advertisers embed into TV commercials or web ads. By listening for these sounds over time, SilverPush allows brands to keep tabs on what commercials and ads users are seeing.

"Upon downloading and installing your mobile application that embeds Silverpush," the FTC warning letter states, "we received no disclosures about the included audio beacon functionality—either contextually as part of the setup flow, in a dedicated standalone privacy policy, or anywhere else."

"We would encourage you to disclose this fact to potential customers," the letter adds, lest app developers be found in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

SilverPush is part of a rising trend among advertisers, known as cross-device tracking. The idea is to unify all of the little spies you carry around—your phone, your laptop, etc.—to form a more comprehensive picture of your activities. As you can probably imagine, the practice has raised the ire of digital privacy advocates.

Hopefully, at least some of the apps using cross-device tracking tech will now at least warn users first, before playing spy games.