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    Disney+Hotstar collects audio data from users’ microphone: Should you be concerned?

    Disney+Hotstar collects information about the content users consume via their microphones, as per the company’s privacy policy. It mentions that the Disney+Hotstar app comes integrated with a software development kit (TV SDK) that is designed to measure and analyze the television channel viewership of Disney+Hotstar Users. TV SDK is enabled only after users give permission for the use of the microphone on their devices. As per Disney+Hostar’s website, the policy was last updated in September 2022. This clause of the streaming service’s privacy policy was first flagged by journalist Jeeth Mashru on X (formerly Twitter) on April 25, 2024.

    As per Disney+Hotstar’s policy, the software “uses the microphone on your device to capture audio samples (including ambient sounds), to create encrypted fingerprint file of such audio sample in real-time.” These fingerprints are then matched against a database of known fingerprints of television channels and television content to identify and understand content that a user has been exposed to on the television.

    The company assures that these fingerprints cannot be reverse-engineered into audio samples. The fingerprints are stored on your devices for a period not more than 48 hours and no actual audio file or voice recordings including conversations are saved on the user’s device or transferred to the Disney+ Hotstar Service on any third party, at any point of time.

    Some context:

    Disney+Hotstar is notably not the first company to try to understand viewership through this method. The ad-tech company Silverpush notably introduced a similar service back in 2014. The company had created an audio tracking code that allowed it to monitor consumers’ TV usage via audio beacons emitted by TV. These audio beacons emitted by the TV were “ultrasonic inaudible sounds” that couldn’t be heard by a person but could be identified by their device (phone/laptop/tablet) if the device was in the same vicinity as the TV. This would, for example, allow companies to ensure that if you are watching TV and browsing Instagram on your phone at the same time, you would see the same ad on both screens.

    In 2016, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued warning letters to 12 application developers using Silverpush’s audio tracking code. After that, the company pivoted to providing a service called “Parallels” which works by tracking TV ads on two hundred channels. This service allows its customers (advertisers) to do the following—

    • Sync ads between TVs and other devices
    • Sync ads with real-life events (like on a day with heavy pollution, it would allow advertisers to promote air purifiers)

    What does the data protection law say about the collection of user data:

    According to the Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) Act, of 2023, companies need any identifiable data about an individual must be processed with their consent. When asking for consent, companies must present a notice to the user. The notice must inform users in clear and plain language what personal data will be collected and the purpose for processing this personal data. It should allow users to withdraw consent with the same ease with which it was given.

    Could the audio data collection be considered ‘digital personal data’?

    “This kind of depends on how they’re [Disney+Hotstar] doing it, but if they’re linking the information they’re collecting with a specific user profile… now under the DPDP Act, if there’s any information that can be identified or linked back to an individual its covered under personal data,” lawyer and public policy professional Divij Joshi told MediaNama.

    Its also important to note here that the content may not necessarily be consumed by only the subscriber. You could have a Disney+Hotstar subscription and log into your account on the family TV, which would basically mean that the viewership patterns wouldn’t be able to create a unique profile since their data would be skewed by your family members’ content consumption practices.

    “There’s a bunch of different arguments about how audio information can become personal data right? Voices are generally considered unique to an individual, so there’s a lot of voice analysis information that can be considered personal data because of that,” Joshi said, explaining why the audio data collection could still fall within the purview of personal data, despite shared usage of the subscription. “Think of it like technology that’s designed to locate an individual through their different attributes, in that sense, if the information has been captured whether it relates to a single person whether it relates to multiple people, if its able to be ascribed to distinct individuals, it ought to count as personal information,” he added.

    If the data collection does indeed fall within the scope of the act, it is unclear whether the streaming service is violative of it because of the ambiguity surrounding how it seeks user consent. While Disney+Hotstar says that it collects the audio with the user’s permission, when we tried to create a free account for the service, no consent was sought for audio recording. Further, upon checking app usage permissions, we found that Disney+Hotstar was not accessing the microphone. We also tried to check a paid Disney+Hotstar account to see if the permissions being sought there were any different, only to find that even that didn’t ask for consent to record audio/ didn’t access the device’s microphone. This makes it unclear whether the app is actually collecting this data from each and every user.

    Why it matters:

    While the stated purpose is to analyze television viewership, there are concerns about the potential misuse of this technology for unauthorized audio surveillance or other unintended purposes. It must be noted that under the draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2023, streaming services could be directed to provide an authorized government officer with “the necessary equipment, services and facilities at designated place or places for lawful interception or continuous monitoring.”

    If the audio data collected by Disney+Hotstar is continuously monitored by the government as suggested under the bill, it would pose serious privacy concerns. It could allow the government to survey private conversations. This could create a chilling effect on free speech and open discourse, as individuals may self-censor or alter their behavior due to fears of being monitored.

    What happens if you don’t allow microphone access to Disney+Hotstar?

    Even though we were not asked for permission both on the free and paid accounts, the streaming service was completely functional. This tells us that users do have a certain level of control over what data they share with Disney+Hotstar while still accessing the content it provides.

    Also read:

     


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    The post Disney+Hotstar collects audio data from users’ microphone: Should you be concerned? appeared first on MediaNama.

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