On Tuesday, Spain's premier soccer league, La Liga, was hit with a 250,000-euro fine — about $280,000 — for using its mobile phone app to spy on millions of fans as part of a ploy to catch venues showing unlicensed broadcasts of professional matches.
The country's data protection agency said the league's app, which was marketed as a tool to track game scores, schedules, player rankings and other news, was also systematically accessing phones' microphones and geolocation data to listen in on people's surroundings during matches. When it detected that users were in bars, the app would record audio — much like Shazam — to determine if a game was being illegally shown at the venue.
The league used the technology only on Android phones. According to El Diario, the app has been downloaded more than 10 million times.
The Spanish news site reported that the agency found that La Liga did not adequately notify users about the app's surveillance components and therefore violated the basic principle of transparency under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation.
La Liga countered by saying it did offer two opportunities at the time of installation to block the spylike functions. But the watchdog said the soccer league should alert users every time the microphone is remotely activated, including adding an icon to the screen when the phone is recording.
Some other apps try to use the same features to gather information, if they're not blocked by users.
The surreptitious functionality was met with outrage from fans when it was discovered a couple of weeks after the EU's data protection regulations went into effect a year ago. The rules require app-makers to expressly convey to users what they are doing with the data they're gathering. At the time, El Pais reported that the discovery became a trending topic on social media and it sent Android reviews of the app plummeting.
The soccer league responded by telling fans that the app's snooping elements were designed to combat piracy. "These fraudulent activities represent an estimated loss of 150 million euros annually for Spanish football, which translates into direct damage for clubs, operators and fans, among others," La Liga said.
In a statement on Wednesday, La Liga said it "disagrees deeply" with the data protection agency's decision and accused it of not making "the necessary effort to understand how the technology works."
La Liga plans to challenge the decision, insisting it has followed all existing regulations. League officials sought to clarify that the software protects individual users' rights because it doesn't record, store or listen to conversations.
"All this technology was implemented to achieve a legitimate goal," La Liga said, adding that it has a responsibility to use all technological advances at its disposal to "fight against piracy."
La Liga also said it will not be applying the data protection agency's recommendations. It called the app "experimental" because the league was already planning to turn off those functions at the end of the season, which falls on June 30.