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Snooping: It's not a crime, it's a feature

April 16, 2011 07:09 AM ET

Of course, the use of your microphone with these apps is well understood by users, because that's the main purpose of the app.

The new apps are often sneakier about it. The vast majority of people who use the Color app, for example, have no idea that their microphones are being activated to gather sounds.

Welcome to the future.

Coming soon: A lot more apps that listen

What you need to know about marketing and advertising is that data is king. Marketers can never get enough, because the more they know about you and your lifestyle, the more effective their marketing and the more valuable and expensive their advertising.

That's why marketers love cellphones, which are viewed as universal sensors for conducting highly granular, real-time market research.

Of course, lots of apps transmit all kinds of private data back to the app maker. Some send back each phone's Unique Device Identification (UDI), the number assigned to each mobile phone, which can be used to positively identify it. Other apps tell the servers the phone's location. Many apps actually snoop around on your phone, gathering up personal information, such as gender, age and ZIP code, and zapping it back to the company over your phone's data connection.

Most app makers disclose much of what they gather, including audio data, but they often do so either on their websites or buried somewhere in the legal mumbo jumbo.

It turns out that, thanks to sophisticated pattern-recognition software, harvested sounds from your home, office or environment can be transformed into marketing demographic gold.

You should know that any data that can be gathered, will be gathered. Since the new microphone-hijacking apps are still around, we now know that listening in on users is OK. So, what's possible with current technology?

By listening in on your phone, capturing "patterns," then sending that data back to servers, marketers can determine the following:

  • Your gender, and the gender of people you talk to.
  • Your approximate age, and the ages of the people you talk to.
  • What time you go to bed, and what time you wake up.
  • What you watch on TV and listen to on the radio.
  • How much of your time you spend alone, and how much with others.
  • Whether you live in a big city or a small town.
  • What form of transportation you use to get to work.

All this data and more, plus the UDI on your phone, could enable advertising companies to send you very narrowly targeted advertising for products and services that you're likely to want.

The future of marketing is contextual. And listening in on your life will enable marketers to deeply understand not only who and where you are, but also what you're paying attention to.

How do you feel about cellphone apps listening in on your life? If you'd like to tell me, I'm listening, too.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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