Your Smartphone Is Spying (If You’re a Spanish Soccer Fan)

Photo: Frank Ramspott

No iPhone urban legend is more popular, or more persistent, than the idea that Facebook is secretly listening to our conversations through our smartphones and using the data it gathers to advertise to us. Of course, it’s not true: Facebook is not spying on you through your iPhone. Spain’s top professional soccer league is.

El País and other Spanish papers report that La Liga — the league in which Real Madrid and FC Barcelona play — has been fined 250,000 euros by the Spanish data-protection agency for improperly notifying users that it was using their microphones and location data to listen in and find bars that were pirating streams of soccer games:

The La Liga app — designed to offer results online and provide information on first- and second-division teams — incorporates other features, such as using the microphone to capture the sound of broadcasts and, via algorithms similar to those Shazam employs to detect a song, deduce whether the customer is watching a soccer game. Since the app also uses the geolocation of the user, it can check whether the place where the game is being watched is playing an illegal stream.

La Liga — which sued 600 bars in March for pirating soccer games — admitted last year that its app does this but has said it will contest the fine. The app, La Liga claims, asks for users’ consent to access their microphones. (How exonerating you find this likely depends on how easily you accidentally press “Okay” buttons in phone pop-ups without reading the dialogue.) Maybe more to the point, La Liga insists that it listens only for a specific “sonic fingerprint” (i.e., the game broadcast) and ignores sensitive information like conversations.

Even if you believe La Liga — and global soccer is probably the only industry less trustworthy than Silicon Valley — this is not as comforting a defense as it might seem, at least to me. The Facebook-is-listening conspiracy theory may be a scary one, but it’s soothingly narcissistic. We users and our private desires are (according to the theory) so lucrative to the company that it’s willing to secretly and illegally hack our hardware to spy on us.

La Liga, by contrast, isn’t really interested in us at all except as potential agents of a surveillance network designed to protect intellectual property as aggressively and efficiently as possible. Even worse, it (correctly) thinks so little of us that it out-and-out asks users for permission to treat them like listening devices, knowing that plenty of people will simply say yes. The conspiracy-theory version of the secret-spying app is grand and elaborate. The reality is smaller in scope but somehow crueler: No one wants to be hacked or spied on, but at least Facebook is interested in our conversations and respects us enough to go behind our backs. In the conspiracy theory, at any rate.

Your iPhone Is Listening to You (If You’re a Soccer Fan)