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Big Revolution - When your phone really does listen back

Welcome to Thursday’s newsletter, brought to you once again from a Manchester to London train. I rely
June 13 · Issue #444 · View online
Big Revolution
Welcome to Thursday’s newsletter, brought to you once again from a Manchester to London train. I rely on my iPad’s LTE connection on days like this, and it’s being frustratingly slow today, while on Tuesday it was super-zippy. Either way, it’s likely much better than the train’s on-board wifi.
– Martin from Big Revolution

Big things you need to know today
  • Alphabet subsidiary Jigsaw has been accused of polluting political discourse by hiring a professional troll farm as part of research into online disinformation.
  • Fortnite makes Epic Games has acquired Houseparty, the video chat app that evolved out of briefly hot live-streaming app Meerkat (remember that?).
The big thought
Listening both ways? Credit: William Iven on Unsplash
When your phone really does listen back
People who are convinced that Facebook listens to them through their phone have received some ammunition to their largely debunked argument.
Spain’s top football league, La Liga, has been fined €250,000 after it was found to be using its app to identify bars that we showing games without a license. The app would use a location database to identify when users were in a bar during a game. It would then record audio to check if the game was being screened.
Essentially, La Liga bugged its fans’ phones to bust content pirates. Clearly, this broke data protection laws, even though La Liga said no human ever listened to the audio, and users had the ability to opt out by not allowing the app to use their phone’s location or microphone.
Obviously, this is an invasion of privacy and a deceitful practice that abuses La Liga’s relationship with its fans. However, it would be unwise to use it as proof apps like Facebook are listening to conversations to help target ads.
One common argument against this theory is that the data and battery power required to keep the microphone open and sending audio to a server would make it impractical. The La Liga app’s approach of recording targeted snippets of audio in certain contexts might work. Facebook could tell when you’re close to other Facebook users, for example and open the microphone to collect a small part of a conversation and identify keywords.
Facebook has shown time and again it has little respect for user privacy, but would it really deny repeatedly over years it was engaging in an illegal practice that it really was, while operating as a public company?
Short of a smoking gun, I’m sticking by the argument that ad tech is now so all-seeing that it doesn’t need to listen to you to have a good idea what’s on your mind before you do (in some cases, at least).
Either way, if La Liga is doing it, this won’t be in-house tech and plenty of other apps may well be doing similar things for various reasons. The best defence is to simply make sure only apps that have a real need to access your microphone can do so. Check your phone’s settings to make sure this is the case.
One big read
We Read 150 Privacy Policies. They Were an Incomprehensible Disaster We Read 150 Privacy Policies. They Were an Incomprehensible Disaster
“The average policy took 18 minutes to finish and required a college-level reading ability.”
One big tweet
Google breaks convention by confirming leaks as genuine. Here’s the first look at the next Pixel smartphone. Normally leaks would remain without comment until the day of the official announcement. The Pixel 4 isn’t likely to launch for another four months.
Made by Google
Well, since there seems to be some interest, here you go! Wait 'til you see what it can do. #Pixel4
7:30 PM - 12 Jun 2019
That’s all for today...
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