A Pitch Too High


In trying to specifically target their advertisements and therefore get a higher return per ad, companies like to know as much as possible about the consumer, and lately some of them have resorted to using ultrasonic beacons embedded in their ads. Say you are at your desktop computer reading a news story from the online version of your local newspaper, and nearby on your desk is your smartphone, which is on but currently idle, or so you would assume. Unknown to you, one of the ads on the webpage you are looking at emits an ultrasonic beacon lasting about 5 seconds through your computer’s speakers. Most likely also unknown to you (because like most people you probably don’t bother to read all the permissions you grant an application when you install it), one or more of the applications on your smartphone pick up that ultrasonic beacon through the phone’s microphone and, through various commercial agreements also done without your knowledge, relays the packet of information encapsulated in the beacon, along with information contributed from the smartphone application, back to the advertiser on the webpage as well as to anyone else who has an interest in information about you.


The more advertisers know about you, the better, as far as they are concerned. The problem here is how sneaky they are being about collecting information. It is even possible for advertisers to embed ultrasonic beacons in television advertisements, though so far there is no proof any of them have done that. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates deceptive advertising practices, nonetheless recently warned 12 smartphone application developers about deceptively implying they were not monitoring users’ television viewing habits when in fact they were capable of doing so. Researchers recently discovered that as many as 234 Android applications are capable of using beacon technology. Unfortunately, it appears the FTC is reluctant to force the developers to divulge this capability to Android smartphone users. There is even less information available from Apple application developers.


Statue of Liberty, NY
The Statue of Liberty, also known as a beacon of freedom, on Liberty Island in New York Harbor; photo by William Warby.


This cross-device tracking, as it is known, is as invasive and sneaky as it gets, yet there seems to be little political will to either outlaw it or regulate it. A warning letter? That’s all? In the 1950s and 60s there was a public outcry about subliminal messages in print and television advertising. While the effectiveness of subliminal advertising has always been dubious, people were nevertheless upset they were being manipulated in such a sneaky, underhanded way. Because of the public outcry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was moved to state it would revoke the license of any broadcaster who used subliminal messages in programming or advertising, and the FTC stated that it would prosecute advertisers under Sections 5 and 12 of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, which governs deceptive practices.


Given the remarkable similarity of ultrasonic beacons in electronic devices to subliminal messaging, in practice if not in usage, it’s difficult to understand why the FCC and FTC have not come down harder on the commercial use of this technology. The practice is the same because both seek to take advantage of consumers without their knowledge, and certainly not with their explicit approval; the usage is different because subliminal advertisers cast a wide net to boost sales, while companies employing beacons gather information about users in order to more specifically target them, like fish in a barrel. Until federal regulators take stronger action against the use of ultrasonic beacons, people upset by the practice will apparently have to rely on the more acute hearing of their dogs to alert them.
― Techly
His Master's Voice
His Master’s Voice, an 1898 painting by English artist Francis Barraud (1856-1924) of his brother’s dog, Nipper. The Victor Talking Machine Company began using the painting in 1900, and in 1929 the painting became the symbol of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), aka RCA Victor.


We Are Controlling Transmission


“It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman.”
― Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech he gave at a North American Broadcaster’s Association symposium on February 16, 2017.


If you have a smartphone, you might not be aware it has a chip in it that allows it to receive FM radio broadcasts. The phone manufacturers include the chip as a matter of course for all phones worldwide, and then coordinate with the carriers about activating it or not. In the United States, only about 44% of smartphones have activated FM radio chips, according to Mr. Pai. There are smartphone applications available that take advantage of the FM radio chip in the phone, and downloading and trying to use one of those applications is a way of determining if your carrier has activated the chip. Most likely, though, if you don’t see an application for “FM radio” already installed on the phone, then the chip is not activated.

5.6.2014 E-Rate Modernization Workshop (13959900047)
Ajit Pai at an FCC workshop on May 5, 2014.

Since the chip is already in the phone, why would the carriers not want it activated for their customers? Activation costs them nothing, after all. The carriers are suspiciously silent on this issue, which allows the rest of us, their paying customers, to speculate on their motivations and judge them harshly. Cellular phone companies are in the business of selling internet access along with phone service. Even though their phone contains a chip capable of receiving FM radio, most smartphone users can only access FM radio stations through an application such as TuneIn, which uses the internet to tap into a station’s streaming service, if it offers one. That sells data for the carriers. If your phone could access FM radio directly, your carrier would get nothing.

“We are controlling transmission.”

Besides saving data when accessing FM radio without using the internet, smartphone owners can expect longer battery life because their phone is not constantly using its transmitter to talk to the nearest cell tower the way it does when streaming media. The screen and the transmitter of a smartphone are the two biggest battery drains. Ownership of the phone brings up another issue – if it’s your phone, and it has the capability of receiving FM radio, your carrier should not be able to prevent you from using that feature. It appears the motivations of the carriers come down to greed and arrogance. Shocking!

To be fair, not all carriers disallow FM radio service and some of them disallow it only on some of their phones. No one understands why, because the carriers, who are in the communications business, are not talking. Some carriers don’t even bother to acknowledge there are public safety benefits to their customers of having access to FM radio outside of internet or cellular service during and immediately after a natural disaster, when those two services might be out of commission. The best course of action for smartphone users is to bring pressure to bear on their carriers, who up until now have been relying on the ignorance of their customers to get away with their policy. When you bought your phone, did your carrier advise you that it contained an FM radio chip? Most likely not, because then they would have had to explain why they wouldn’t let you use it. Take back control and make them explain themselves to you here and now.
― Techly

Motorola Transistor Radio 1960
An early transistor pocket radio by Motorola. The first Motorola brand automobile radio was produced in 1930. Motorola began the commercial production of transistors at a new $1.5 million facility in Phoenix in 1955. This advertisement is from the May 23, 1960 issue of Life magazine (page 13). The 1960 price of $24.95 translates to a little over $200 in 2017.