privacy

Update: Silverpush has informed MediaNama that the product in question has been discontinued. The company has rolled out a product called ‘Parallels”, which allows advertisers to synchronise their mobile ads at the same time that their ads are also live on TV, or when a competitor is running ads. “This does not need any customer side integration”, the company said.

Earlier: The US Federal Trade Commission has issued warning letters to 12 application developers using an audio tracking code deployed by Gurgaon based Silverpush. Addition of the Silverpush code allows it to monitor consumers TV usage via audio beacons emitted by TV, which can’t be heard by the consumer, as long as the mobile phone is in the same vicinity. Silverpush then uses this information to provide advertising re-targeting on mobile: that is, (for example) if you have watched an ad on TV, you might see banner advertisements from the same company/product on mobile, because the advertising software will know which ads you have seen on TV.

On its website, Silverpush states that it maps over 13 million digital media signals to the TV broadcast sources every month, and is the “largest and most comprehensively tagged catalog of TV broadcast data in the world”:
– (It) Fingerprints and analyses over 2 million minutes of broadcast TV video every day
– “Our GPUs track television across 300 channels”
– “In 10 ms we identify what is going on in the television using Artificial intelligence and deep machine intelligence”
– “We track over 40 different dimensions of metadata – everything from the brand, agency, actors, products, songs, moods and other pertinent data.”

It also adds that it analyzes 3 billion digital media interaction every month across social activity on Facebook and Twitter and online views across Youtube, searches on Google, Bing and Yahoo!, to find out “relationship and trends in the data using Hybrid Problem Solving technique involving regression analysis, design of experiments and heuristics”; However, it says that the data is anonymised with “SilverPush proxy genome id”.

Silverpush’s website doesn’t mention its clients, but in statements in the past, they’ve said that their clients have included, Airtel, Myntra, Toyota, Domino’s, UCWeb and King.com among others. The company is backed by Unilazer Ventures, IDG Ventures India, 500 Startups, GSF Accelerator, as well as Tutorvista founder K Ganesh, Tyroo CEO Siddharth Puri and Former Komli Media CEO Prashant Mehta. The total amount of funding it has raised is undisclosed, but it is at least above $2.75 million (source, source).

Silverpush not operational in the US, but still…

It’s worth noting that these warnings has been issued to applications despite a statement from Silverpush that its service is not currently in use in the United States, and that it actively encourages application developers to notify consumers that their app could allow third parties to monitor TV viewing habits. The FTC has said in the warning letters that app developers ask users for permission to use the device’s microphone, despite the apps not appearing to have a need for that functionality, but don’t inform consumers that the app could monitor television-viewing habits, even if the app is not in use. In a statement, Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said that “These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them,” and “Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it’s shared with.”

MediaNama’s Take: Privacy and the marketers problem

While there are clear privacy concerns especially given how apps take permissions, and users consent without giving it adequate thought, Silverpush is trying to address a legitimate marketing issue: advertising is spread across different media, and advertisers have access to different disconnected datasets on usage across channels. Silverpush addresses that gap, and gives marketers the option for retargeting users with banners that might help with conversions. MediaNama readers might also remember previous attempts at bridging this gap, at least in terms of interactivity (and not data): Shazam had partnered with Airtel many years ago, and we’ve seen enough businesses use QR codes and short codes. All those methods needed the user to take the initiative. The problematic part of how Silverpush operates is that the user never really knows when their TV viewing habits are being tracked, and given that they don’t really read details of permissions sought when it comes to app updates, they never even know that their data is being tracked, or what all is being tracked.

It’s also worth noting that this data collection is taking place in the absence of a privacy and data protection law in the country, as well as the absence of a proactive regulator such as the FTC.

The FTC Statement (source)

FTC Issues Warning Letters to App Developers Using ‘Silverpush’ Code
Letters Warn Companies of Privacy Risks In Audio Monitoring Technology

The staff of the Federal Trade Commission has issued warning letters to app developers who have installed a piece of software that can monitor a device’s microphone to listen for audio signals that are embedded in television advertisements.

Known as Silverpush, the software is designed to monitor consumers’ television use through the use of “audio beacons” emitted by TVs, which consumers can’t hear but can be detected by the software. The letters note that the software would be capable of producing a detailed log of the television content viewed while a user’s mobile device was turned on for the purpose of targeted advertising and analytics.

The letters note that Silverpush has stated publicly that its service is not currently in use in the United States, but it encourages app developers to notify consumers that their app could allow third parties to monitor consumers’ television viewing habits should the software begin to be used in the United States.

“These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it’s shared with.”

The warning letters note that app developers ask users for permission to use the device’s microphone, despite the apps not appearing to have a need for that functionality. The letters also note that nowhere do the apps in question provide notice that the app could monitor television-viewing habits, even if the app is not in use.

The letters warn the app developers that if their statements or user interface state or imply that the apps in question are not collecting and transmitting television viewing data when in fact they do, that the app developers could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. The FTC provided guidance in a 2013 staff report on best practices for privacy disclosures in mobile apps.

The letters were issued to 12 app developers whose apps are available for download in the Google Play store and appear to include the Silverpush code.

The Federal Trade Commission works to promote competition, and protect and educate consumers. You can learn more about consumer topics and file a consumer complaint online or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357). Like the FTC on Facebook (link is external), follow us on Twitter (link is external), read our blogs and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

Image source: under Creative Commons CC-BY from Scott Sterbenz