The creepy features on your smartphone

Over the summer, my friend showed me a feature on the iPhone that genuinely appalled me. Without my knowledge of explicit consent, my phone was keeping track of every bar, restaurant, building, and house I was going to—and it recorded precisely at time I entered and for how long I stayed. For those who don’t believe me, try it yourself by going to: Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services -> System Services -> Significant Locations.

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On Thursday of this week for example, I arrived on campus at 11:40AM in time for my 12PM class. At 7:36PM, I left school to grab dinner. Thankfully, this feature can be turned off. Unfortunately, there are various others that cannot.

Other questionable features

Microphone is always on

Beginning approximately 3 years ago, saying trigger phrases such as “Hey Siri” to an iPhone and “Ok, Google” to an Android started to wake up the device. What is important to note here is that in order for the phone to do that, the microphone must be turned on at all times—meaning it’s always listening to you, what you’re doing and who you’re talking to. Additionally, Apple has admitted that everything you say or ask Siri is sent to the company for analysis and stored for at least two years. This may all be justified by the fact that companies simply want to improve the services of the intelligent assistant—running algorithms on the data allows them search for patterns and better cater to your personal interests.

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But how would you feel if a third party was listening to all your voice commands? A few years back, an insider working at Walk N’ Talk Technologies whose job consisted of listening to an audio clip and rating how well it matched up to the text, stated something quite shocking. He claimed that he would analyze audio clips on a daily basis, which ranged from little kids asking “Hey Siri, do you like me?” to adults asking their Galaxy notes to perform impossible and inappropriate tasks. The thought of a human having access to every question I’ve asked Siri isn’t such a pleasant one. It is no wonder Microsoft employees are prohibited from using Siri in the office—they are afraid that Apple will pick up on sensitive information from the voice recording and use it to their advantage.

Camera is always on

As we’ve discussed in class, the privacy concerns surrounding the iPhone X’s ability to scan a face to unlock the phone is quite the burning topic. One thing we did not discuss however, was the fact that the iPhone X’s sensors and cameras always need to be activated and scanning for faces in order for the Face ID to function. This means that big tech companies can now gather highly sensitive information without the consumer’s knowledge. Gender, ethnicity, age are the obvious ones. The more sophisticated ones include wealth (conditions of your house, your furniture and your apparel), type of friends, emotional state, and even sexual orientation and intelligence, according to a recent research report. Imagine what the tech giants could do with this kind of data, if they wanted to.

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What should we make of all this?

I am not one to get easily paranoid about technological advancements, and as far as I can tell, the primary objective of rolling out new features like these is not surveillance and for keeping track of our every move. And as Alexandra neatly laid out for us in both her presentation and follow up blog post, the new features introduced by Apple will benefit individuals and businesses alike in an infinite number of ways. But while the initial intentions of the “Frightful Five” may really be to maximize the convenience of the customer experience, that may not even matter.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the tech giants operate with the utmost regard to ethics and morality, and don’t do anything with the information available to violate our privacy. Unfortunately, this information can still fall into the wrong hands with all the wrong intentions. As demonstrated in my presentation about North Korea’s abuse of social media and technology and by the current headlines about governments tapping into new digital features, our information can be used by external parties to cause real damage to both individuals and to the society at large. Therefore, I believe there is an increased need to be fully aware of the risks of trading off privacy with convenience.

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If we use our phones without adjusting any default settings, our devices know our weekly schedules down to the minute, what our voices sound like, what we’re interested in, which friends we spend the most time with, what we look like, how we are feeling, and much more. The combination of all such information paints a pretty detailed picture of who we are—and as a result, many important questions have been raised. For example, can law enforcement force a criminal to open up your phone with your fingerprint? According to the 5th Amendment, citizens have a right against self-incrimination, but some courts have ruled that if law enforcement has a warrant, they can require you to do so. With the introduction of Face ID and other features, we will see how legislation will adjust and evolve, and to what extent companies and governments will be legally allowed to leverage such information.

Side note

A couple months back, I watched a Netflix original movie called “The Circle,” starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. As terrible as the movie was, there was one interesting scene, where Emma Watson was able to find a murderer who had been in hiding through social media and the phones of users in less than 10 minutes. I thought this would be a good extreme example of what companies could accomplish with all the data they have collected. I couldn’t find that exact scene, but here’s another clip from the movie where Watson uses the same method to track down Mercer, a friend who had been in hiding. The chase begins at minute 1:10. Also, if you haven’t watched the movie and plan on doing so, SPOILER ALERT.





  1. m_thompson19 · ·

    Wow, great post. The craziest part about this blog is that, had I not read it, I would have no idea that significant locations was a feature. There’s something very tough to swallow when companies implement features that can be considered invasive to consumers without such consumers consent. Definitely teetering the cool/creepy line. The inability to filter out some of these features seems to be an infringement on privacy. This all comes back to our classroom discussion about whether its avoidable or whether consumers don’t care enough to find less invasive alternatives. Definitely something to be aware of as technology moves forward – being informed is half the battle.

  2. Catherine · ·

    I was aware that my phone generally could and was always tracking my location, but did not know the amount of details it had. When I looked into my frequent location, it listed my dorm as Home, even down the side of the dorm that I live on. I, like you, understand that this data collection is generally used for improving algorithms and often results in benefitting the user, but you raise an interesting question about how this information could and has been used in law enforcement. We see again, the government having to react to a constantly evolving technology landscape. It will be interesting to see how this privacy concern holds up in the court of law in the future.

  3. Great blog post! I followed your instructions on my iPhone to see the tracking for myself…insane. I have read headlines and articles regarding Apple and other tech giants tracking us, but never thought I could see the depths of it right on my phone (perhaps part of me didn’t want to know!). Your paragraph about the details of individuals that will be accessible to tech giants through the iPhone X is definitely alarming. I think the bigger question is, do we want to succumb to the privacy breach and give up the reigns to the tech companies who essentially add another dimension to every day life, or do you want to boycott it and go back to a Razor cellphone? Great blog post.

  4. Oh boy, this was quite the eye opening post! Everyone always talks about how “creepy” technology can be in today’s world, but I never realized to what extent. People often compare tech companies to Big Brother, but this seems to have gone farther than George Orwell could have ever predicted. This sort of government interaction can definitely have its ups and downs. No matter the intentions, it is very unsettling knowing how little privacy we have.

  5. Wow, I, too, did not realize how “intimately” my phone was tracking my location. I followed your instructions and was blown away (quickly turned that off). As you were speaking to the North Korean abuse of social media/technology, it also made me think (which I believe you were alluding to), the power that we are potentially giving not only our own governments, but third parties outside of the control of anyone. All of the talk about Russia involvement in the election, through use of ads and carefully curtailed social media presences on platform’s like Facebook, is incredibly frightening. These companies like Google and Apple are supposedly creating these built in features to make our lives easier, but what are they potentially exposing consumers too? It seems like everyone is in such a “race” to have the latest/greatest technology, that both consumers and tech companies will sacrifice potentially manipulative features just to make our lives easier. Great post, really made me think.

  6. We as individuals currently have choices to make and benefits to weigh out. We all say how scary it is that companies can collect so much information, but we typically don’t do much about it to make it difficult for them to collect that information, other than the old trick up tape on the camera on our computers. If people really thought the benefits were not worth the info we are giving tech companies, then they wouldn’t buy the products. If its really an issue, put your phone in a locker or a box when you aren’t using it. But most people won’t do that….because they really don’t care that much.

    It doesn’t bother me that they are collecting this information for a few reasons.
    -I am not doing anything illegal
    -I am not that important
    -I don’t do anything interesting.

    You referenced companies needing to have high morals, and I think a great example of this is Apple not assisting the FBI with getting into the individual who carried out the attacks in San Bernardino. I think acts like this shows true moral courage. They stared down the FBI in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and told them know, even though it would help the FBI figure out information faster. And they did this because of the ramifications it would have on constitutional rights.

    1. I agree with you that the benefit to risk trade-off is worthwhile. I also realize that most people don’t care much about giving up information to tech companies, but I wanted to point out that with the continuous audio recording, location tracking, and activation of the camera, perhaps we should start to. The concern is not so much that the tech giants will abuse the data (Apple has down well to stare down FBI as you mentioned), but that obscure third parties will, through illegitimate methods. Going back to the North Korea example–I did not have access to a phone while I served, but even the lowest ranking, “not that important” officers who weren’t doing anything illegal, did. If North Korea was somehow able to get their hands on the data on one of these phones, our base location (through location tracking), military strategies (through voice recordings), and arsenal of weapons (through cameras and sensors) can easily be compromised. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of national security either – 10 years from now, some of us may be key, high level employees at a firm. And the competitive advantage of the firm we represent can be eroded instantaneously though a leak of price sensitive information exploited through our smartphones.

  7. kaitlinardiff · ·

    Super creepy that our iPhones knew this! I’ve always wondered how they were able to track us. Over the summer, I would always go to a friend’s house after work on Fridays. Towards the end of the summer, I got a notification on one Friday at 3PM telling me that it was time to go to 40 Oakwood Drive. I always wondered how it knew where I should be somewhere and when, so this must be why! It would be interesting to see if Google or someone in the ad space started to use this data to notify you of other pizza joints if it found that you were going to Pino’s a lot.

  8. Wow. That is creepy. Even worse is that looking at my own significant locations makes me realize how boring I am IRL. :)

  9. camcurrie99 · ·

    Great post. I seemed to have discovered the “significant locations” feature in the past and turned it off, but I can understand how someone just saying “yes” to a location services request doesn’t really equate to saying yes to this level of detailed tracking and storage of location data. That said, i have looked relatively extensively into how companies like Apple encrypt and anonymize data before sending it to their servers, meaning that your data is not tied to you as an individual and it cannot be intercepted. As with many privacy concerns people have with technology, much of it can be avoided by turning off certain features although this will lead to a loss of usability and some people are unwilling to compromise. One thing that I want to point out about your iPhone X section is that the Face ID feature is not constantly running. Not only would that be a tremendous battery drain, but it would also greatly affect processing abilities on the device. The Face ID scanner is only active when the phone is locked and someone attempts to unlock it, just as Touch ID only looks for the correct fingerprint when unlocking and not anytime after that.

  10. Yvette Zhou · ·

    I totally agree! some features of smart phones are really creepy like you mentioned. I know a fact that one of my friend was tracked by his wife using frequent locations in iPhone. I was astonished when he told me this! But i guess the most creepy feature is AI assistance like Siri so I never used it for assistance but for fun Lol. IoT makes our life easier but also expose our privacy easier. That is why more scandals and crimes hidden before go to air in the current age. Many celebrities need to stand on their toes, afraid of their bad behaviors being exposed one day. This apply to politicians too. So I guess everything is a coin with good side and bad side. IoT exposes privacy, at the same time, avoids criminals happening.

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