Apple responds to claim "active listening" can hear your phone conversations and use them to target you with advertising — Calls it a breach of App Store guidelines

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(Image credit: Getty Images / Maria Korneeva)

Cox Media Group Local Solutions -- a marketing company connected to one of the biggest telecom companies in the US -- claims it can listen to conversations through phones and other devices and was selling that information, iMore reported last week. Now Apple has contacted iMore to clarify that this would be in breach of its App Store guidelines.

As we said in our original report, Apple is known to take its privacy very seriously. But CMG didn't make clear how it gleams data and what from, other than nebulously stating it comes from 'smartphones, smart TVs, and other devices.'

An FAQ at the bottom of CMG Local Solution’s Blog (which was unceremoniously removed) stated that “our technology is on the cutting edge of voice data processing. We can identify buyers based on casual conversations in real-time. It may seem like black magic, but it's not -- it's AI. The growing ability to access microphone data on devices like smartphones and tablets enables our technology partner to aggregate and analyze voice data during pre-purchase conversations.”

In response to that claim, Apple noted its App Store Guidelines, which state "Apps must request explicit user consent and provide a clear visual and/or audible indication when recording, logging, or otherwise making a record of user activity." Data collected and stored must be made aware to the user, can be retracted at any time, and must be in line with current GDPR regulations.

Consideration – iMore’s take

Many iMore readers may not be aware of this but, in a life before writing here, I pursued a career in law and specifically studied the GDPR as part of the degree I proudly hang up in a wall back in my hometown. Something that is important to note is that, in a contract like that you sign with new apps, consideration is given on both sides to what you are getting from the interaction and what you are giving.

If you are not made aware of what you are signing specifically, it is not considered a valid contract, which is why Apple talks about "explicit user consent" in its guidelines. You can not sign away rights to something hidden in a contract that you were not made aware of. Apple confirmed to iMore that apps can't access your microphone or camera unless you let it, and clarified that an orange indicator displays when they are on, partially for this reason. You can technically give away your right to that information if made aware of that choice and if the data is handled responsibly so CMG could be reliant on people actively giving information made through recordings or videos to it. 

This is not to say that there aren’t legal ways to access information in other ways, especially that which you give it through search engines, smart speakers, and more. Siri itself does not tie your data to you and only uses information to improve the device. This also makes no mention of any other phone manufacturers, who will also have processes in place to stop activity like this. 

Apple also highlighted many of the privacy protections built into its iPhone with iOS, including permissions required for apps that want to track you, and its App Privacy report which shows how often your microphone, photos, camera, and contacts have been accessed over the last seven days. Apple also told iMore that any data processed or stored on servers is associated with a random identifier which means it can’t be traced back to you. 

CMG Local Solutions has made claims suggesting it either has a way around traditional processes in other phones or is potentially misleading clients as to how effective its marketing information is. CMG Local Solutions was pretty vague about how its data capture worked but it claims to work with partners like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. This is not an indication of guilt from any of the named companies but we’re hoping the specific use of this data will be made clear further down the line. 

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James Bentley

James is a staff writer and general Jack of all trades at iMore. With news, features, reviews, and guides under his belt, he has always liked Apple for its unique branding and distinctive style. Originally buying a Macbook for music and video production, he has since gone on to join the Apple ecosystem with as many devices as he can fit on his person. 

With a degree in Law and Media and being a little too young to move onto the next step of his law career, James started writing from his bedroom about games, movies, tech, and anything else he could think of. Within months, this turned into a fully-fledged career as a freelance journalist. Before joining iMore, he was a staff writer at Gfinity and saw himself published at sites like TechRadar, NME, and Eurogamer. 

As his extensive portfolio implies, James was predominantly a games journalist before joining iMore and brings with him a unique perspective on Apple itself. When not working, he is trying to catch up with the movies and albums of the year, as well as finally finishing the Yakuza series. If you like Midwest emo music or pretentious indie games that will make you cry, he’ll talk your ear off.