The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) revealed earlier this week that an Indian company called SilverPush has developed technology that allows certain TV advertisements to secretly send commands to your smartphones and tablets.
SilverPush’s software is stealthily “baked” into apps found on mobile devices. The software listens for near-ultrasonic sounds embedded in a television, Internet or radio advertisement. While the software and your phone can hear these sounds the frequency is usually not heard by the average human ear.
The app listens for these signals and when hearing them promptly sends a shocking amount of personal information to an advertiser. Such information includes the location of the mobile device, the identity of the device’s operating system, the owner’s identity and any other personal information accessible to the infected app.
A typical scenario is as follows: you are on the couch watching television and your smartphone is in your pocket. An advertisement comes on during a commercial break and that ad contains a secret SilverPush ultrasonic message. An app on your smartphone, which you’ve installed not knowing that it has the SilverPush spying software, “hears” the message, which then pings a media network with information about you. All the information you’ve ever put into the app or allowed it to read from your smartphone can be sent to the TV advertiser, without your consent.
Joe Hall, chief technologist at CDT, told the press on Thursday that, “This kind of technology is fundamentally surreptitious in that it doesn’t require consent; if it did require it then the number of users would drop. It lacks the ability to have consumers say that they don’t want this and not be associated by the software.”
Hall pointed out that very few of the apps that include the SilverPush software actually tell users about its existence – and therefore do not obtain informed consent.
It is important to note that SilverPush’s software is technically illegal in the United States and Europe.
Interestingly, there are similar systems in use already – but the legal ones have one major difference between SiverPush. For example, the television and radio ratings agency, Nielsen, employs a similar system by detecting certain audio sounds in order to measure the size of a show’s audience. However, in order for Nielsen to track such information, people have to consent to its use and they also get paid for doing so.