Earlier this week, a class action lawsuit was filed by a New York resident in a federal court in San Francisco regarding alleged privacy violations by the Golden State Warriors’ mobile app. Defendants include the Warriors; the app’s designers, Yinzcam; and Signal360, who developed a system of sound beacon technology that is embedded in the app.
The allegations are that this technology uses your microphone any time the app is running, even if it’s in the background or your screen is off. The plaintiff alleges that the app records users’ private conversations and stores that information somewhere for purposes that aren’t made clear in the initial complaint. In addition, the complaint states that users who downloaded the app in the Google Play Store weren’t given enough information about why the app needed access and didn't have a way to deny access (the complaint also specified that iPhone users would not be included in the lawsuit).
Upon reading through the complaint, it seems that the party most at fault—if these allegations are true—would be Signal360 because it developed the beacon technology. To a lesser extent, Yinzcam, for using the technology in the app, even though it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose towards the app’s general functions aside from targeting ads at users. Whereas the Warriors would likely be held accountable for signing off on the app, especially if they knew the extent of the potential privacy violations ahead of time.
This technology does seem pretty invasive, like if a GPS system’s program sent you targeted ads by using your location information to determine what was physically around you. The technology uses a phone’s microphone to pick up any nearby sound beacons that are placed in specific locations so that the app could target ads at nearby users and track their movement patterns.
It’s unclear how wide-spread this technology is, however. The beacons have to already be set up in public locations to be identified by the phone. The complaint only refers to hypothetical situations and the reports I’ve seen on the lawsuit have only mentioned it actually being used at Oracle Arena.
The complaint alleges that the app never seeks consent before using the microphone, but that’s a bit of a stretch. When you first open an app after downloading it, you’re asked to grant it permission to any phone functions it needs. That permission is granted indefinitely until you delete and reinstall the app (though, I’m not sure if Google Play apps allow you to accept or deny specific requests separately like Apple apps do, which would partially explain why iPhone users are not included).
There are some valid concerns about invasive advertising practices here, but that doesn’t seem to be the plaintiff’s main concern. It remains unclear, even after reading the full complaint, what led the plaintiff to believe that the app is listening to users’ conversations and storing them like they’re the National Security Agency. It could be a possibility, though, so it’s worth an investigation into what Signal360 does with any audio data they receive.
If Signal360 is, in fact, recording and storing / using private conversations, they would be in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which prohibits “intentionally intercepting any oral communication or from intentionally using, or endeavoring to use, the contents of any oral communication while knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of an oral communication.” Basically, don’t spy on people. Common sense would dictate that Signal360 would have been well aware of this, but common sense isn’t always very common, so time will tell if there is merit here or not.
According to Signal360’s CEO, Lauren Cooley, they believe it to be a misunderstanding in regards to the purpose of the technology. In a statement to Silicon Beat, she said the following: “Our technology does not intercept, store, transmit, or otherwise use any oral content for marketing purposes or for any other purpose.” For their part, the Warriors have declined to comment, as their policy is not to comment on pending litigation.