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Creepy Ad Company Says It Will Stop Eavesdropping With ‘Audio Beacons’

Silverpush claims it won’t be using ultrasonic tones to target ads anymore, but its website still advertises the tracking tech.

SilverPush, the Indian ad tech company that became infamous for tracking smartphone users with ultrasonic audio beacons, says it will abandon its novel eavesdropping ad business, according to a company press statement emailed to Motherboard.

The company has taken fire from regulators and privacy groups for its use of Unique Audio Beacons (UABs), inaudible tones that can be detected by the microphones of nearby mobile devices running apps embedded with SilverPush's proprietary code. The technique was developed as a method of so-called "cross-device" tracking, enabling advertisers to link someone watching an ad on their TV or laptop, for example, with a smartphone listening for the beacons in the same room.

Now the company claims it is leaving the audio beacon business altogether, saying in a press statement that it "has exited from all UAB (Unique Audio Beacon) based business and shifted to a newer product line."

SilverPush insisted the decision had nothing to do with privacy concerns

Despite having helped pioneer these audio beacons, SilverPush also says it would very much like to not be associated with them anymore.

"We would appreciate if SilverPush is not associated with UAB based business going forward," the company states.

Last week, the FTC issued a public warning to 12 unidentified Android app developers it suspected of using SilverPush's UAB tracking code without informing users. According to the FTC, these apps used code similar to the demo software published on the Google Play store by SilverPush and required permission to use the device's microphone even when the app was not in use.

SilverPush's press release seems to be a response to the FTC's letter. It starts out by claiming that the company has "no active partnership with app developer [sic] based in the US," and suggests that the apps the FTC is looking at are using different code from a competing company.

The FTC did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

At the same time, the press release goes on to "clarify" that SilverPush's decision has nothing to do with privacy concerns at all, because it was "never intruding intruding [on] privacy and adhering to all regulations." SilverPush also claims that its audio beacon matching was "done with user consent." But this makes no sense given that users were never made aware of the fact that their apps were running SilverPush code in the first place; the FTC specifically noted this in its open letter, demanding that app developers either disclose their use of SilverPush code or remove it entirely.

When asked by Motherboard why it pivoted away from audio beacons, a SilverPush spokesperson would only say its decision was "a natural process to move to a more evolved product as a part of our business plan" that began almost a year ago, and again insisted that it wasn't responding to privacy concerns. The company spokesperson also said that SilverPush has never partnered with US app developers in the past, and claimed that any apps that integrate its audio beacon tracking code explicitly ask for permission before accessing a device's microphone through a pop-up message within the app itself. Motherboard was not able to verify these claims, because SilverPush will not identify which apps and companies are using its code. As of April 2015, the company claimed that 67 apps were using its code, allowing it to monitor around 18 million devices.

Overall, SilverPush's claims are highly dubious and inconsistent. As of this writing, the company's website still advertises its audio beacon technology, as well as its ability to track users "across first and third party data using our propeitary [sic] technology."

And even if SilverPush truly is out of the audio beacon game for good, competing cross-device tracking companies like Flurry, Drawbridge, and 4Info use the same technology, and will surely pick up the slack until regulators hold them to account as well.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with comment from SilverPush.