Shazam, the song-identifying app whose logo keeps making its way onto TVs for second-screen expansion, has expanded its smart-listening deeper into your life with a new automatic tagging feature that basically turns your iPhone or iPad into a personal little wiretap. (The new feature isn't available for Android yet.) To save users time, Shazam no longer requires users to tag songs, shows, or advertisements to get a fuller experience about said ditty, program, or marketing campaign. Now it just does that for you, tagging all background noises automatically — noises it can tag, that is, and presumably not your conversations.
Sure, it sounds a bit creepy to have an app always recording your entertained life, but it's also way more convenient. "The one lingering concern from our partners was, maybe a 30-second TV ad is not long enough for someone to pull out their device and Shazam a commercial," David Jones, Shazam's marketing chief, told Variety's Todd Spangler. Before the new upgrade, Shazam took approximately 12 seconds to boot up and tag, but auto-tagging speeds up the process to one to three seconds. In practice, Shazam will only tell a user about some bit of entertainment (or advertising) if they inquire, by physically tapping the tag. You'll then get all the extra information Shazam provides, without having to pull out your iPhone or iPad to hit the Shazam button. That information — and that information only — will also inform the app's second screen advertising, in which Shazam present users with "custom experiences" during commercial breaks of television shows they're watching. When a user Shazams a compatible program or television advertisement, not only does it pull up information about the program, but the branding kicks in on top. See? Convenience! But at what privacy cost?
The London-based Shazam recognizes the frightening implications of turning its music-ID software into a kind of always-on household eavesdropper, insisting that the company doesn't plan on using all the data it will inevitably collect for evil. "We're not trying to do anything like audience measurement on a grand scale across our user base. We're only interested in what our consumers actually engage in, not what auto-tagging may pick up around you," Shazam's executive vice president of marketing, David Jones, told The Guardian's Stuart Dredge. Although the app tags everything it hears, it will only consider a sound "meaningful" if a user "engages" with said tag. "If the device just auto-tags it and it stays unopened, we'll treat it as something that wasn't of interest to you," he further explained. But what does that really mean? And can, like, the Justice Department come calling one day?
Well, probably, yeah, they could call. But you should probably actually worry more about your newfound willful overengagement than your illicit conversations with friends while the TV is on: "We're already sitting on a goldmine of data, and we're being respectful and thoughtful about how we monetise that," Shazam's Jones added. And, of course, auto-tagging gives Shazam even more data than that "goldmine" by recording and tagging everything around us. Shazam says it will use all this information responsibly — but that's now, during expansion. As we've seen with lots of other data collection websites (ahem, Facebook) tunes change when investors and founders get agitated by the lack of profits generated by their free services.
There remains one very encouraging option for those with privacy fears: The new Shazam recording option is opt-in. And, hey, sometimes it might make sense to have the auto-tagging feature turned on, when the benefits outweigh the idea that Shazam is always listening. Like, during a commute, as Jones used as an example for GigaOm's Janko Roettgers. "My entire commute's music was sitting there," he said.
Update 1:11 p.m.: Shazam has clarified that the app doesn't store any recordings or use voice recognition software. "It only takes the sound patterns of a few seconds of audio and compares and matches them to music and TV content in our database," a spokesperson told The Atlantic Wire.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.