What would you give away for $5?

Company pays you a few bucks in rewards to let them listen in via your phone’s microphone.

You can trade out your privacy for a few dollars. And this company—Symphony Advanced Media—is willing to make it happen. “The more you share, the more you earn,” says Symphony about its app Media Insiders in the Google app store. “You help us, we reward you!”

The company says it wants to record your phone’s audio for five to thirty seconds every so often—every minute, according to Fusion—to identify what TV show you are watching, and then track what you say about it on social media, among other things.

Your reward? About $5 in Perks Points every five weeks, the Media Insiders site says, if you are using their smart phone app and their PC app, what the company calls “Total Compliance.”

You can join the 15,000-member “research panel,” the site explains, make the future of media “even brighter,” be a part of “groundbreaking”research, and “earn valuable rewards.”

Some have a different view.

“The privacy concerns over this software are huge,” writes Alex Hernandez in Techaeris. “Do you really want a company collecting all of your digital behavior? What’s stopping them from collecting more than what they’re claiming to collect?”

Symphony’s sell

The company hails its technology as a way to track what people are watching, now that many people do not watch television the old-school way, over the air.

A video on the Symphony site presents the problem of “Jennifer,” a “hardworking” but frustrated brand manager for a large beverage company, who wants to know if her ad campaigns are succeeding, but has to rely on asking questions of consumers “who can barely remember what they ate this morning, let alone recall an ad they saw last week.”

Symphony solves that problem for her, the site says, so Jennifer can see that “40% of viewers who watched her sponsored show tweeted about her product and 80% googled it.”

Companies are also looking at using the data to determine viewership for shows on platforms like Netflix, according to Wired.

For example, the show Jessica Jones earned 4.8 million viewers in the 18 to 49 age group, and Master of None earned 3.9 million in the same demographic, said NBC research president Alan Wurzel in the Wired article.

How they do it

To get there, Symphony says it collects a “significant” amount of data from you, in addition to listening in on your phone.

Some of the information it mines includes which apps you are using and how often, what you do on social media, including messages you send, what you are searching online, your Internet traffic, your smartphone traffic, whether you open certain e-mails, who you are in contact with, your browser history, what you have purchased, what you have downloaded, some of your behavior “both offline and online,” and more, according to Symphony’s Media Insiders site. 

“We collect all information that is not encrypted, including websites, ads, searches, and downloaded or streamed files and videos,” Media Insiders’ FAQ’s say.

That could include your e-mails, which are often not encrypted, according to Patrick C. Miller of Archer Security Group.

Media Insiders says you will need to download their VPN, or virtual private network. 

“Not sure if the users fully understand that this means a third-party is capturing all of their Internet traffic for ‘analysis’—and in theory, storage, for at least some period of time,” Miller said.

For some, the trade-off is not acceptable.

“This is creepy,” wrote one commenter on Ars Technica. “You’re inviting the corporate equivalent of both the NSA and FBI into your lives. For *up* to $300…pathetic.”

“If the paltry amount of money they’re offering is a fair trade for your privacy, then yeah, sure, I guess,” wrote another.

Business bonus

For Symphony, the trade-off could be a gold mine.

“Kind of brilliant from a business perspective,” said Miller. “Someone somewhere said, ‘Let’s take creepy whole-life tracking and make that our business model. And let’s do it for $5 worth of Internet points.’”

Some cybersecurity experts say Symphony’s Media Insiders is similar to some widely-used free services.

“Gmail, Facebook and others make money by selling targeted ads,” said Jim Feely with Archer Security Group. “This company makes money by reporting on whether advertising was effective. Users are compensated for their behavior data with payments instead of free services. I’m actually surprised more people aren’t doing it.”

“It’s not for me,” he added, ”But I can understand the appeal of direct compensation as opposed to free services.”

What do they do with your info?

You opt in to the program and can read the terms and conditions and privacy policy before agreeing.

But you might forgive some Symphony users if they are not completely clear on what is happening with their data 

“We don’t violate your trust by releasing any personally identifiable information about you, your family, household member or friends to anyone, ever,” the Media Insiders site says on its About Us page.

“Does anyone have access to my personal information?” it asks in the Media Insiders’ FAQ’s. “We employ the most sophisticated technology to protect your personal information, and we will never release your information.”

But in the privacy policy, the site says it will indeed give away your information to its “Panel Partners,” business partners “which also offer market research services.”

“These panel partners have access to all information collected about or from our panel members, including the identity of the panelists,” the policy says.

“Each panel partner is required to use the information collected from the Media Insiders panelists in accordance with this Privacy Policy,” the site says.

But later, it says the company’s privacy policy “does not apply to the practices of third parties who have access to information about our panelists, as described in this Privacy Policy.”

Will consumers read the information before agreeing, and will they know which parts of the policy apply to their data?

Fusion asked Symphony executives how they handle privacy. The CEO told Fusion that people see the privacy policy when they sign up. “At any point during that process, if they get skittish, they just leave,” CEO Charles Buchwalter, formerly with Nielsen, said in the article.

Your voice & more

Though the company listens in on your TV shows and your conversations, Symphony says it does not keep the recordings of your voice.

The Media Insiders site says it translates your sound samples into a numeric code called a hash, and the hash is transmitted to a sound identification company called Gracenote to see what you are watching

“Media Insiders does not have access to the content of the recording,” the site’s privacy policy says. “The hash codes representing the sound samples are deleted from the panelist’s device within a few hours after having been created. A hash cannot be reconverted into the original sound sample.”

The company’s chief technology officer, Pyeush Gurha, told Fusion that people signed up for the program “don’t need to worry about their conversations being captured because the system wouldn’t be able to recognize the code of it created, because it wouldn’t match anything in Symphony’s database.”

“It’s like if you went into a bathroom and looked at the fingerprint on the doorknob,” he told Fusion in the article. “You can’t know who it belongs to unless they’re in a database.

Giving away rights?

Cybersecurity experts say getting paid for your data now could cause problems for you later.

“Since the entire basis of your relationship with Symphony is that you are getting compensated for willingly giving them access to personal data, it would be a lot more difficult to find them at fault for misusing your personal information in the future,” said Bob Beachy with Archer Security Group.

“If laws are enacted in the future regarding handling of private information, your Symphony data could be exempt since it was collected as a direct result of your compensation,” he said.

“The question then becomes, is $5 per month worth giving up such information and opening yourself up to such risk?” Beachy asked.

You may also sign away some of your rights in the company’s terms and conditions.

They say that you can’t talk about information learned while using the program, and that Symphony’s liability to you will be limited to $10, if there are problems.

“In no event shall SymphonyAM or its providers or suppliers be liable to you or any third party for any indirect, consequential, exemplary, incidental, special or punitive damages, including, without limitation, lost profits, arising from your use of the Media Insiders site and participation in activities, even if SymphonyAM has been advised of the possibility of such damages,” the terms and conditions say.

Technical difficulties

People on the Media Insiders panel may have decided that $1 a week—or less—is worth the risk. A number of their comments on social media, however, appear to be focused on the many Media Insiders technical difficulties, possibly leading to a 3.5 rating on its Google app.

In May, Media Insiders posted on its Facebook page that there was a problem with users connecting to Facebook, and that its referral program, designed to bring you more points, was inactive.

In June, it said it had a capacity issue on one of its VPN servers, making it hard for some people to connect, and points were delayed due to “an issue with data.”

In August, it said some people experienced a crash with the new app.

In October, a VPN server went offline, causing prolonged issues affecting a “large number of people,” and the Facebook connection was still not working.

In November, points were delayed, and the Facebook connection problem continued.

In January, more VPN problems, more point delays and a problem using the app on Apple devices that caused the app to crash, possibly because the license had expired, Media Insiders said. It encouraged people in the program to use Android devices or PC’s until the problem was resolved. As of February 3, Media Insiders said it was still working on the fix.

In February, the web site crashed. “It was on overload and giving people errors, timing out, or just ‘spinning,’” the site told its users, before announcing a fix the next day.

“Sorry, but there is no compensation for when things break. It will work eventually,” Media Insiders posted.

Displeasure

Though some commenters posted positive statements about their joy at receiving rewards and expressing gratitude for the updates and customer service, there was also displeasure.

“I’m not sure if this is a scam or the developers of the app are completely incompetent. The app worked for about a week then on my phone and tablet it crashed over and over again,” one wrote. “Uninstalling.”

Archer News asked Symphony questions for this article. Symphony did not respond.

Cybersecurity experts recommend you examine the program closely before you decide to sign up.

“Symphony may appear to be open and honest about its practices, but there is no reason they have to be that way forever,” said Beachy. “Your information is obviously worth more to the market in general than just $5, or a company such as Symphony wouldn’t be making any money.”

“So every customer should consider if what they are getting in return for their information is worth the exposure,” he added. “One extra fast food cheeseburger per month may not be worth the risk of exposure for everyone.”