Domestic spying is getting a bad rap these days. Sure the NSA might be listening to all of your booty calls and coded conversations with your pot dealer, but they're not really hearing you, man. I mean, to get to the core of you, they need to connect with your music, right?
Thankfully Arbitron, a radio ratings company that collects consumer research data (and sells it to ad firms, commercial radio stations, etc), has come up with a voluntary domestic surveillance device that monitors all of the music you hear throughout the day. This big-brotherly contraption is called a Portable People Meter (or PPM).
Instead of relying on folks keeping diaries of their radio listening habits (a-la Nielsen TV ratings), Arbitron created a cell phone-sized hunk of plastic (to be worn by the test subject all day long) that registers inaudible (unless played backwards, perhaps? more on satanic backmasking here and here) ID codes embedded in TV and radio satellite and broadcast signals, department store sound systems, internet radio audio, and MP3s you listen to, beaming the data back to their mothership at the end of the day when the user plugs the device into its base/charger. Equipped with a motion detector, the PPM even knows whether or not it's being worn by the user (although, I suppose you could clip the thing to a ceiling fan or set it on your turntable, and play a loop of ABBA's "Dancing Queen" all day long if you really wanted to fuck with them). Click on the flowchart above to view the PPM's musical spying scheme in detail.
But before you get your panties in a bunch about this nefarious market research methodology, remember that it requires voluntary participation on both the user end and the content provider end (and no, WFMU has no plans to embed secret ID codes into our broadcast or internet signals... we prefer audible forms of mind control, thank you very much).
Perhaps scarier than the PPM mounting on our horizon is existing song recognition technology, employed by companies like Media Guide. Station Manager Ken recently acquired a copy of a song-tracking log this company had generated (without WFMU's knowledge, duh), presumably by hooking up a song-recognition computer to one of our internet streams. Interestingly enough, about 80% of the music we played during the period surveyed did not appear on their song list, suggesting that they've got a pretty narrow musical radar.
So do they hear what we hear? Almost.