La Liga spied on bars showing games illegally by accessing smartphones of app users

James Badcock
The Spanish football league, La Liga, is headed by Javier Tebas - AP

Spain's football league, La Liga, has been hit with a €250,000 (£222,000) fine for using fans' mobile phones as spying tools to crack down on bars screening matches with pirated television signals.

Via its app, La Liga would remotely turn on the microphone function of users' phones to listen for the sound of a match broadcast. 

The geolocation function was then used to establish the position of the person watching a televised game in order to check whether they were in an establishment with a paid subscription to an official La Liga package, or if it was using an illicit signal. 

Spain’s data protection agency (AEPD) issued the fine after finding that up to 50,000 La Liga users' phones were affected. 

The AEPD ruled that La Liga had committed a “very serious data protection infringement” by failing to adequately inform users that their device activates the microphone.

Sevilla's forward Jose Antonio Reyes celerates after scoring during the Spanish league football match Malaga CF vs Sevilla FC Credit: Cristina Quicler / AFP

If the scheme to crack down on venues screening games had been carried out legally, it would have to have told users every time their microphones were switched on, which would have meant an in-app notification had to be sent to people once every minute while they were watching a match. 

All indications suggest that the scheme by La Liga was successful, with 600 criminal cases filed against against Spanish bars and restaurants. 

La Liga has said previously that it loses €400 million a year in television royalties, and that half of Spain’s 120,000 establishments showing La Liga do not buy a hospitality package. 

Of these, 60,000 bars and restaurants showing football on the cheap, La Liga calculates that two-thirds use a pirate signal, while the remainder simply use the signal from a home television package at a fraction of the official price.

According to an investigation published by La Liga last December, it is common for several bars in a neighbourhood to share the signal from one pirate decoder, making cash payments to a bank account for this illegal service.

In an official reaction to the ruling on Tuesday, La Liga said it would challenge the decision through the courts.

La Liga said the more than four million users of its app in Spain “express proactively and twice over” their consent for the use of their mobiles for the detection of fraudulent behaviour from unauthorised establishments.

But, in a decision that calls into question the way users of digital services give permission for the use of personal data, the AEPD took issue with the app’s one-off system of consent, suggesting instead that La Liga should have warned users each time that the activated the espionage function.

La Liga says it is not spying on its users, arguing that the listening technology consists of an algorithm like the one used by Shazam, the popular song-identifying app, which breaks the ambient sound into a binary code that is automatically compared to the sound of the broadcast, with no data being recorded or stored.

“We could not record conversations even if we wanted or if a judge ordered us to, not even if they were related with the piracy that we are trying to pursue,” an IT specialist from La Liga told the online newspaper eldiario.es.

La Liga has said it will not be continuing with the use of the technology from the end of June, although it said this was merely due to the end of a contract with the supplier, and not due to the AEPD’s decision.