Silent Signal Gathering Info Through Your TV and Mobile Devices - NBC Connecticut

Silent Signal Gathering Info Through Your TV and Mobile Devices

(Published Tuesday, May 3, 2016)

Some companies may be using your television and your mobile devices to learn a lot more about you.

It's called tech syncing. An undetectable audio beacon is sent through some TV commercials and into your home. That beacon is then picked up by microphones in your smart phones, tablets, and laptops, allowing companies to know what commercials you saw, when you saw them, and where you saw them.

The federal government recently warned a handful of companies about doing this. Experts say it's a matter of time before someone else tries.

Family time often means a TV is on while everyone settles in with their smart devices. Sheryl McNamee of Cheshire says,

“That’s what families do. We hang out, but we’re together, in our worlds, texting, tweeting,” said Sheryl McNamee, of Cheshire.

She wasn't happy to learn about the practice of tech syncing.

“It’s invasive, and there’s a sneakiness to it as well,” she said.

Software made by a company called SilverPush makes it happen.

According to experts, the software gets put in certain apps. The apps have access to the microphone on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. When the microphone picks up a beacon coming from a TV ad, it lets SilverPush know, and the India-based company can compile the data.

“That technology has a certain amount of a creep factor,” said Russ Anderson, a Fairfield attorney who blogs about internet privacy.

Anderson has represented companies that collect information. He says more often than not, they are looking for data on thousands of people, not individuals.

“They don’t really care about you. They just want to, you know, advertise to you, or they want it for market research,” Anderson said.

The Federal Trade Commission still has concerns about SilverPush. In March, the FTC sent letters to a dozen developers where SilverPush appeared to be included in their apps. The agency warned that tech syncing could be a deceptive practice.

“You should say somewhere, what you’re doing. The FTC has brought some cases where even if it’s deep in a privacy policy, or terms of service, we said, well shoot, that’s so surprising you probably have an obligation to make it more well known,” FTC spokesman Justin Brookman said.

Lon Seidman records a popular internet program on technology in Connecticut.

“It’s one of those things where when you install a free app sometimes there is, there’s a cost to be paid not necessarily in money but perhaps with your privacy,” Seidman said.

According to Seidman, when it comes to software like SilverPush, you do have ways to keep it from using your devices’ microphones.

“Go into your settings screen, and look at in your application privacy settings to see what apps are using what things on your phone to make sure that you’re not giving access to companies of things that you don’t want them to have access to,” he said.

Seidman and Anderson say while you won’t have enough time to read through every privacy policy to make sure it’s not listening in on you, keep aware of any trends when it comes to this kind of software through the news, or word of mouth.

“There’s going to be others that attempt to push the envelope and try to collect more information than the ordinary consumer would expect,” Anderson said.

It's a scary thought for television watchers.

“I’m like 'well what’s next? You know what’s coming after this? What else will someone know about me? What else will Big Brother know about me and mine, that I’m gonna find out about after the fact?'” McNamee said.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters made multiple attempts to speak with SilverPush. The company did not respond. Several published reports say SilverPush claims it no longer uses the undetectable beacons and has no active partnership with any U.S. based developers.

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