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Parliamentary questions
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6 December 2019
Question for written answer
to the Commission
Rule 138
Eva Kaili
 Answer in writing 
 Subject: Averting privacy threats from ultrasonic cross-device tracking

Ultrasonic cross-device tracking is a technology still in its infancy relatively speaking, and involves high-frequency tones being emitted by advertisements, billboards, web pages, and retail outlets.

The human ear cannot perceive these near-silent tones, but applications with access to a device’s microphone can pick them up, and use them to develop a profile on the basis of user location, viewing and purchasing habits, or website visits (1) .

This technology poses a serious threat to users’ privacy as it enables tracking of locations, behaviour and devices without users being aware of the fact. It allows companies to link consumption habits to a person’s identity, which could lead to targeting and profiling without the user’s consent.

Last year 234 Android applications included the ability to listen for ultrasonic tones without the user’s knowledge, and several shops in two European cities installed these ultrasonic beacons (2) .

In light of the above, how will the Commission:

Ensure that emerging technological applications that pose a threat to users’ privacy are identified and included in the updated scope of existing privacy legislation?

Protect users from undetected profiling and targeting through ultrasonic device tracking, and establish a ‘consent framework’ so that users are always aware of such practices?

(1) Arp, D., Quiring, E., Wressnegger, C., and Rieck, K. ‘Privacy Threats through Ultrasonic Side Channels on Mobile Devices’, IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy 2017, Technische Universität Braunschweig.
(2) Ibid.
Original language of question: EL
Last updated: 20 December 2019Legal notice - Privacy policy