If Google is watching you, Facebook can now listen in on your activities with a new audio recognition feature for its mobile app that can turn on smartphones’ microphones to “hear” what songs or television shows are playing in the background.
If Facebook users post a status update, the audio recognition feature can identify and share what TV show they’re watching down to the exact season and episode number, or the album and track of the music artist they’re hearing.
Facebook’s goal is to leverage the five billion status updates for TV and music experiences that users share each year, reports Wired. And of course, to cash in on the television advertising dollars that could be gained by eventually targeting viewers according to the songs and shows they choose.
But many users are concerned about what else the app is recording – a particular concern for corporate workplaces. Although Facebook’s audio recognition feature is optional, once selected it automatically turns on whenever a status update is made. Will companies need to prohibit Facebook sharing in workplace lunchrooms or cubicles if that action turns on a microphone each time?
Facebook’s says its app matches what it “hears” to a database of millions of songs and 160 television stations so that users can seamlessly comment on what they’re watching or hearing. But the company says the new feature, which took over a year to develop, can’t record conversations or other background noises.
Still, many Facebook users say the new “hearing” capabilities are downright creepy. Over 500,000 users are signing a petition to demand that Facebook’s new audio recognition feature be removed from its mobile smartphone app. The public has shown similar reactions to Google’s wearable Glass device that can take pictures, record videos, and post them online without people’s knowledge.
Beyond the creep factor for consumers, many mid-size businesses have special privacy concerns related to the new technologies. Many casinos and theaters have already banned customers and employees from using Google Glass, while banks, hospitals, and other businesses handling sensitive user information are also examining the privacy implications of the new technology.
Employees of USAA, the corporate home, life, and auto insurance provider, for example, were recently banned from using Google Glass in the office, where it could potentially be used to capture sensitive member data and invade the privacy of fellow employees.
USAA’s company policy specifically recommends prohibiting wearable devices like Google Glass when employees are in company meetings or at workstations displaying the personal information of its members. “We do take the protection of our members’ personal information very seriously and as such, we prohibit unauthorized use of recording devices while conducting USAA business,” the company said in a statement.
The same concern could apply to smartphones sporting Facebook’s audio feature if the technology were updated to capture conversations as well as music and shows. And Facebook is well known for pushing the boundaries on privacy in order to learn more about users’ experiences.
Some businesses are fighting back. Privacy advocate Stop the Cyborgs offers free downloadable signs on its website for business owners who may want to ban Google Glass from their premises. In the restaurant business, one Seattle bar owner has already banned Google Glass, saying on Facebook that patrons “definitely don’t want to be secretly filmed or videotaped and immediately put on the Internet.” Businesses like bars and restaurants that play music and TV may also have concerns about audio recordings by Facebook users.
Other mid-size companies worried about surreptitious recordings include health clubs and gyms with changing rooms, and businesses that serve children, such as pediatricians, schools, and day care facilities.
But banning customers from using a mobile app that shares people’s locations, and now, what they’re listening to, could be a much harder policy for businesses to implement. About 65 percent of companies allow employees to bring their own smartphones, tablets, and other devices to work — but according to Information Week 43 percent of those companies have no designated security policy for those employee-owned devices.
Whether Big Brother is watching or listening in, mid-size companies in all industries will need to review the potential privacy impacts of these latest technological advances carefully in order to maintain their customers’ trust — and potentially their business as well.