Monday May 08, 2017

234 Android Applications Are Currently Using Ultrasonic Beacons to Track Users

Back in 2015 we reported of a new tracking technology, where advertisers could use ultrasonic transmissions in locations, radio, TV broadcasts, music and apps, picked up by your phone, in order to tie your user account on your phone to these locations/sounds, collecting even more data about you than they already do. Back then we reported that companies with names including SilverPush, Drawbridge, and Flurry were working on ways to pair a given user to specific media and devices. Well, now it is reality. A research paper recently published by a team of researchers from the Brunswick Technical University in Germany indicates that 234 Android apps now have been found that use this technology. The names have changed somewhat (now it's Shopkick, Lisnr, and SilverPush) but they appear to have advanced this technology to the point where it is now widely adopted.

uXDT streams have been found in retail stores and in Android apps, but thus far none have been found in TV broadcasts. This research appears to mainly have been conducted in Europe, though, so we do not know to what extent the technology may have been deployed in the U.S.

For a more detailed read of the paper, it can be found here.

Personally, I find this highly disconcerting. In theory I don't mind being tracked anonymously for advertising purposes, but real life is not purely theoretical. The number of ways in which user data can be compromised and abused is staggering, and that only grows as we have less and less of an understanding of who is collecting it, how and when. As was found 10 years ago, just because data has been scrubbed of identifying tags, doesn't mean it is always entirely anonymous. I can't help but feel like the assault on privacy is starting to reach a breaking point.

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This number is up from previous scans. For example, a scan of the same data set in April 2015 found only 6 apps using uXDT beacons, while another scan in December 2015, found 39 apps.

The jump from 39 to 234 is staggering, to say the least, especially since some of these apps have millions of downloads and belong to reputable companies, such as McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme.