Popular Soccer App Spied on Fans Through Phone Microphone to Catch Bars Pirating Game Streams

Photo: Emilio Morenatti (AP)

Spain’s data protection agency has fined La Liga, the nation’s top professional soccer league, 250,000 euros ($283,000 USD) for using the league’s phone app to spy on its fans. With millions of downloads, the app was reportedly being used to surveil bars in an effort to catch establishments playing matches on television without a license.

The La Liga app provides users with schedules, player rankings, statistics, and league news. It also knows when they’re watching games and where.

According to Spanish newspaper El País, the league told authorities that when its apps detected users were in bars the apps would record audio through phone microphones. The apps would then use the recording to determine if the user was watching a soccer game, using technology that’s similar to the Shazam app. If a game was playing in the vicinity, officials would then be able to determine if that bar location had a license to play the game.

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So not only was the app spying on fans, but it was also turning those fans into unwitting narcs. El Diario reports that the app has been downloaded 10 million times.

Though La Liga admitted the app did record through users’ phones, the league insisted the users had the option to opt-out of allowing the app to track phone location and access the microphone. The league told El Diario that the app automatically turns the audio into a code that is not stored or listened to by employees.

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The app’s terms of service does explain that the bugging is optional:

If you accept the specific and optional box enabled for this purpose, you consent to the access and use of your mobile device’s microphone and geopositioning functionalities so that LaLiga knows from which locations football is being streamed and thus detect any fraudulent behaviour by unauthorised establishments. Activation of both the microphone and geopositioning of your mobile device will require your prior acceptance of our pop-up window.

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The legal notice emphasizes that this feature is only used to detect La Liga broadcasts.

However, the data protection agency ruled that La Liga did not properly inform users, thereby violating their privacy, according to El País. The agency fined the La Liga for violating EU data privacy and transparency laws, and ordered the league to take down the app by June 30.

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The league has become notoriously aggressive against illegal streaming in recent years. In 2017, La Liga launched an anti-piracy campaign, enlisting the help of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and employing a proprietary tool to scan the internet for illegal streams.

La Liga plans to continue using its fans in that fight against piracy. According to El País, the league issued a statement announcing it will appeal the sanction, claiming the data protection agency did not make the necessary effort to understand the app’s technology.

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo