Smartphone Apps: They’re Listening

Last month, there was some buzz surrounding a new iPhone and Android app called Color, a social platform that takes the grunt work out of uploading photos and friending people. The app is a little hard to understand, but the idea is that it detects the people around you (who are also using the app) in order to create a small, immediate social network based on your location.

For example, if everyone at the Arcade Fire set at Coachella had this app, everyone in the audience could look at their phones whenever they wanted and see pictures, videos, and status info from the rest of the crowd. The developers say they wanted to localize the idea of a social network and create communities based on the places you already go and the faces you already know. (How many of us have our neighbors added on Facebook?)

The buzzworthy app got some mixed reviews after a bumpy start, but yesterday I caught wind of another hiccup that might bring the app’s progress to a halt as more and more people become aware of it. On one of my Twitter lists I saw the following from Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst in Silicon Valley:

Intrigued, I explored the link and found that a handful of apps enable the mic device on phones in order to record ambient sound and find out what you’re listening to, who you’re interacting with, and more. As ComputerWorld called it, it’s the next best thing to reading your mind.

The ComputerWorld article also goes on to list a few other ways that mobile apps use the mic device to collect data from users. Shopkick and IntoNow are other apps discussed — Shopkick is of relevant interest because it uses the mic to detect when users are going into certain stores to offer them deals. How? Using the mic, it detects inaudible sounds generated in the stores by a special device. Bypass Bluetooth altogether.

What do you think of these apps? Are they innovative, especially in terms of researching audiences in the most passive way? Or is there a sense of ethical responsibility that suggests users should know when their privacy is potentially being violated?

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