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Headphones are collecting too much personal data

Agree, Agree, Agree, I agree....wait
January 17, 2019
Pictured is a user agreement on the Pixel 3.
The End user agreement is a blur of words.

Trading personal data for useful software features is nothing new, but do we really need them in headphones? One of the biggest ongoing debates in tech right now is regarding privacy. There’s a lot of money in data aggregation, and while companies like Google have done a decent job at showing how all of that data can be put to practical use (i.e the Assistant), others don’t seem to be making as strong a case.

What kind of personal data are they collecting?

This became apparent when I was recently reviewing the Soul Run Free Pro fitness earbuds which come with an associated app to help users get the most out of them. Granted, the earbuds in question are marketed to runners and are supposed to provide exceptional biometric data and feedback to help improve everything from your posture to your gait, so I was expecting to have to accept a privacy policy or two. That said, I found myself clicking “Accept” a few too many times. I eventually decided to actually read what I was agreeing to, which led to this article.

Close-up of an agree button.
Be mindful of what you’re agreeing to.

Besides the usual information like access to height, weight, age, and sex, the app also requested a few, let’s say, rather unique bits of information. Some of the “additional information” the app collects includes things like leg length, the shoes you wear, and whether you were right or left footed. Weird, but not completely unrelated as this is technically a running app after all. Plus, the entire shtick of these headphones is that they’ve partnered with a company called Beflex Inc. to provide you with next level information about your workouts. However, it gets weirder.

Privacy policy of Soul Run Free Pro app.
If you actually read the privacy policy of some of the apps you use, you might be surprised to see what’s there.

The app also noted that it would collect “wellness-related information” such as alcohol usage, injury history, and even menstruation history. Yeah, menstruation history.  Now I’m no lawyer, but alcohol usage, injury history, and menstruation history sound like stuff that some people might not be too keen on making public. But still, all this for a pair of workout earbuds?

Who else is doing this?

This led me down a rabbit hole of reading privacy policies from some of the biggest headphone manufacturers to see if this was an isolated incident or common practice among giant audio companies. Unfortunately, they all seem to collect data to some extent, though none are as extreme as the example of above. Most seem to only collect the basic data that you provide like name and address. That said, there was one major company that’s collecting a bit more: Bose.

If you don’t remember, Bose already had a fairly mainstream data collecting scandal back in 2017 where the Bose Connect app was found to be tracking what users were listening to and sending that data back to the company to be sold. Think of it like Shazam, but for all the audio that plays through your headphones. Throw in the fact that users were unaware it was even happening, and it became a pretty big deal. Although it has been two years and the heat has simmered down a bit, Bose makes it perfectly clear that this is still happening.

According to its official privacy statement, which was last updated on September 10th, 2018, they’re able to collect and use this data once you hit “I Agree” during setup:

  • Usage data, such as time spent using different features/settings of the product, the day and time you used the product, button presses, the media and other external sources to which you connect your product, and, as applicable, your product’s power spectrum, sound pressure level, volume levels, and streaming information (including content stored on system presets, stations played, playlists, artists, albums, songs, or podcasts), time zone, and transactional data enabling digital rights management
  • Environmental data (e.g., noise level and audio frequencies).
Privacy policy screenshots of the Bose Connect app.
While Bose does still collect, opting out is always an option by clicking Menu > Privacy. Or you can just opt out from the beginning.

Of course, right after this section, Bose does state in bold lettering that you can opt out whenever you want. They’ve even made the process relatively straightforward and at any point in their app, you’re never more than two clicks away from reading their privacy policy and opting out. I’d prefer them not track what I’m listening to at all, but hey, credit where credit is due.

You don't normally think of data collection when it comes to headphones, but it's happening.

The average person might not complain about privacy because, usually, you get something worthwhile in return. If you let Google track you for a week, you’ll get updates about how long your morning commute to work is going to take. Give location access to a weather app and you might get a notification in the morning reminding you to bring an umbrella because it’s going to rain. Sure, it’s creepy if you think about it too long, but it’s dead useful.

On the flip side, I don’t know what I get in return for letting my headphones know what I’m listening to. Furthermore, I can’t think of a single reason why a pair of workout earbuds need access to someone’s menstrual history. We should just call it what it is because, at that point, it doesn’t feel like a transaction anymore. It’s just spying.

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