Android app devs using ultrasonic beacons to track its users

Bradley Wint
May 14, 2017 7:49pm AST
Photo: krapalm/Pixabay

Advertisers will stop at nothing to profile us, and now they’re using our phones to figure out which stores we visit.

Using a piece of tech called ultrasound cross-device tracking (uXDT), advertisers can embed a hidden ultrasonic audio tone (tracking beacon) in TV or radio ads, and listen out for it via a number of Android applications with uXDT software built into various apps.

The beacon itself is inaudible to the human ear, but once a uXDT based application detects it, it sends the signal back to the advertiser, allowing them to build a profile based on where the beacon was played. In theory, the beacon can be placed in TV and radio ads, within stores themselves, or even in popular city locations or events.

With that kind of data, the advertisers can link their target audience with their shopping habits and other interests to better understand their buying habits.

According to a study done by the Brunswick Technical University in Germany, they discovered that there are already 234 popular apps in the Android Play Store using some form of uXDT software to track its users, and they’re even included in apps from big brands like McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme.

One app that employs this tech is shopkick. It rewards you for going to certain stores by listening out for beacons within partner shops, but users must have the app running in the foreground for it to work correctly. While this isn’t so bad, who knows when marketers could set up apps to listen for beacons in the background?

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For now it seems that there are only a few major brands using these trackers only in their store fronts. The study revealed that beacons are not being used in TV or radio ads just yet, but could result in a huge privacy concern should advertisers decide to take advantage of this.

If you’re concerned about apps using your phone’s microphone in a way you’re not comfortable with, later versions of Android allow you to manage those permissions by app or category. All you have to do is go to the Apps manager > click the Cog at the top > select App permissions > select Microphone. From this menu, you can enable or disable which apps can use your phone’s mic.

Disabling this could cause some apps to lose functionality. For instance, with the shopkick app, you’d be unable to track store walk-ins, so it’s up to you what you’re willing to give and take in order to maintain your privacy.

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