Adrian Weckler: 'La Liga's own goal recording app users on phones will stoke privacy row as to who else is listening in'
Just when you thought your phone wasn't secretly recording you, one of the football world's most prestigious sports organisations has been caught doing just that.
La Liga, the Spanish equivalent of football's Premier League and home to Real Madrid and Barcelona, has been fined €250,000 for surreptitiously recording snippets of audio from people's smartphones.
The fine, handed down by Spain's data protection authority, is one of the first major European penalties under GDPR.
The sports body has admitted programming its 'La Liga' app to trigger a smartphone user's microphone in a semi-secret fashion. The app has been downloaded by millions of people.
La Liga's excuse is that it's trying to crack down on illegal football streaming. So it programmed the app to listen for the sound of a TV in the background playing a La Liga football game. It then combined this with the phone's location data to check whether that establishment has a licence to show such premium content. In other words, the organisation is using ordinary people as electronic snitches.
La Liga's defence is that it's losing money to piracy, making such moves necessary. Data protection authorities, citing European GDPR law, disagree.
But the actual listening wasn't the basis for the fine. La Liga was penalised for not telling people sufficiently clearly what its app was doing. Instead of clear red warnings, the explanation is buried in its terms and conditions. For any Irish user that wants to see this in action, the app is still available to download from the Android Play Store (the feature was never allowed by Apple, which has stricter privacy policies in its App Store than Google).
While La Liga "disagrees profoundly" with the penalty, calling it "unjust, unfounded and disproportionate", the affair may now reopen a perennial sore point among the suspicious and the paranoid: if La Liga was secretly doing it, couldn't Facebook and others be doing likewise?
Other recent controversies have contributed to suspicion on the topic.
In April, Amazon admitted that some of its staff are tasked with listening to what we say to Alexa, Amazon's voice system.
This includes misfires, where Alexa accidentally listens to us without a trigger word being used. Alexa is the backbone of the Amazon Echo smart speaker, which is now used in tens of thousands of Irish kitchens and bedrooms.
The company claimed this is to improve the quality of Amazon's artificial intelligence.
Facebook has always denied that it 'listens' to our conversations for the purposes of placing ads.
La Liga's defiance won't quell cynicism over the issue.