Last month, Wired introduced us to "Symphony, the company that tracks Netflix's elusive ratings." Netflix famously doesn't release information about how many people watch its shows and movies, but Symphony Advanced Media reported that 4.8 million people aged 18-49 watched Jessica Jones and 3.8 million in the same group watched Master of None. How did Symphony come up with these secretive numbers? By turning thousands of people's phones into listening devices.
Symphony Advanced Media, founded in 2010, has recruited over 15,000 people to be part of its "panel of media insiders." They downloaded an app from Symphony that collects a ton of information from their smartphones, and turns on their microphones every minute for 5-6 seconds to see what they're watching on their TV or computer. Here's how Symphony describes on its website what it knows about each individual in its panel:
The data sucked up from panelists' phones includes where they are; their Internet traffic; their search keywords; which mobile apps they use and for how long; how many calls, emails and texts they send; and, of course, what they're watching on network or digital TV. In exchange for having everything they do on their phone spied on, panelists are paid $5/month—not in cash, but in the form of points on Perks.com.
If panelists are willing to put the tracking software on other devices in their home, such as computers or tablets, or if they recruit other family members or friends, they can make up to $11/month, Symphony CEO Charlie Buchwalter told me by phone.
Americans' privacy stances are notoriously hard to gauge. A recent Pew Study found that 55% of Americans were unwilling to have their home privacy invaded by a smart thermostat. But the Symphony panel reveals that there are at least 15,000 people willing to let their smartphone privacy, arguably as revealing, or more revealing, than what happens in the home, invaded for just $60 per year.
Symphony's customers include advertisers, network and cable broadcast companies, and studios wanting to know how their content is performing over time, said Buchwalter. To calculate how many people watch Netflix shows, for example, Symphony surveys the percentage of its panelists watching a Netflix program and assumes it represents the equivalent percentage of the total American population. For that reason, Symphony needs its panel to be representative of the general public, which is why panelists have to report their gender, age, ethnicity and income when they sign up.
"We've been building this panel for a few years. We want to get to 20,000 people by the end of March," said Buchwalter, who was at TV ratings company Nielsen for 13 years before joining Symphony. "We recruit online and have recruiting partners. When we bring people on and they're willing to download the app on the phone, we want them to put it on their PC and tablet too. If they do, we pay more. Or if they invite family members or friends, we pay them more."
When it comes to the phone's ability to listen, Gurha said it turns its seconds-long recordings, taken every minute, into a fingerprint, and then deletes the original audio. "That fingerprint is hashed to the database," said Gurha, "and then the system attempts to match it to a show in the database, which contains mainly shows that are popular or have buzz."
So it's a system similar to Shazam's or the way Facebook's app can listen to what's going on in the background when you post a status update to see what you're watching. What's different from those companies' apps is that Symphony's is listening every single minute.
Gurha says Symphony panelists don't need to worry about their conversations being captured because the system wouldn't be able to recognize the code of it created, because it wouldn't match anything in Symphony's database. "It's like if you went into a bathroom and looked at the fingerprint on the doorknob," said Gurha. "You can't know who it belongs to unless they're in a database."
Symphony is far from the only company that's trying to use smartphones to better track what people are doing. Last year, Indian company Silverpush found itself under fire for programming people's phones to listen for audio beacons on television that were inaudible to the human ear. When the phones hear the beacons, embedded mainly in TV commercials, they'll pop up deals or related ads on those people's phones, according to the company's spokesperson Piyush Bhatt. Many, many articles about Silverpush called it creepy. Bhatt defended the company, saying people had granted to their apps the necessary permissions for its software to run. (Yes, this is one of the things that can happen when you grant an app access to your microphone.)
Alvaro Bedoya, director of a center dedicated to privacy at Georgetown Law School, was among those concerned about Silverpush's practice. "People do not expect that while they're sitting at home with their family watching TV, that their phone is silently listening for inaudible noises so that companies they've never heard of can track them better," Bedoya told me last year.
The Federal Trade Commission has indicated that it's concerned that people aren't aware of the ways that their activity is being tracked from device to device. But that's the interesting thing about Symphony. You have to assume that their panelists do know about the tracking, because they're accepting payment for it.