Texting is never a perfect medium for communication, but sometimes when your phone decides to help you out it can get REALLY confusing. I was out in Astoria and Markie was in Portland; as with any couple we had a lot of different topics going back and forth in our text messages, and then she sent me a screenshot of her thread Ė apparently Siri thought I got a new phone number.
Markie: So who's number is that?
Me: Weird. I have no idea and it doesn't show up in my phone book
Now, if you find that your partner suddenly is getting secret phone numbers, no matter how much you trust them, youíre going to wonder what the hell is going on. And if youíre someone as immersed in cloud development and how data flows, youíre going to wonder what the hell is going on, too.
The first thing I did was check my contacts to see if that southern Washington phone number was actually someone I knew and it somehow got blended into my contact record. Nothing... Then I Googled it, which gave me lots of spammy looking services that said they could do a reverse look-up for me, but nothing of consequence.
So the question lingered, what the heck was Siri doing saying I had a Washington phone number? Was there some identity theft issue going on? My accounts all looked good... Was it a Google Voice number? Skype? We were in the uncanny valley of datamining Ė something wasnít quite right and it was just sort of creeping me out.
Scanning back to look at the Siri suggestion I suddenly saw the phone number. I had forwarded a text from the roofer who was running late. In his text he said something like, "Hoping we can reschedule for later this after noon between 1-3 pm if possible Please call me back (360) 244-XXXX Thank you, Patrick"
Mystery solved. Siri was reading Markieís text messages and saw that Michael Bissell had asked her to call him back at that 360 number. The algorithm doesnít go so far as to figure out context, it just blindly sees "call me back at.." and suggests you add that number to your contacts.
And yet... So many things wrong with this. We already know that Siri records what you say and that Apple keeps it (back in 2013 they revealed they keep it for up to two years "for testing and product improvement purposes"). And if you use an online version of iMessage you know theyíre keeping all your text messages.
Well, we know these things but we ignore the fact Apple (and Google) have all our texts, all our voice commands, and a lot more day to day stuff. And we know, but ignore, that theyíre analyzing all that data.
But what weíre really ignoring is that while they have the data, and they have really interesting algorithms looking for patterns, that they may be wildly misinterpreting that data. We donít see it surface very often, and we usually laugh about how badly the ďAIĒ fails (and I put ďAIĒ in quotes because itís not really intelligent).
The creepy feeling I had as I was trying to figure out how Siri associated some random number with me is only heightened by the fact that Apple now probably has some data point somewhere in a data lake that says Michael Bissell has used Patrickís phone or gets messages there.
Now, because a dispatcher gave me his mobile number and I forwarded it to Markie, the three of us are linked in some algorithm. Granted, that is a tenuous link and probably would need more links to strengthen it, but weíve already seen one misfire... How many misfires does it take to build a solid connection?
We live in increasingly quarrelsome times where details are taken out of context and weaponized. I donít think Siriís is recommendation dangerous, but I do think the growing number of algorithms that are searching for patterns are creating new data lakes that get analyzed by OTHER algorithms that can create distorted pictures.
We definitely arenít being careful enough with the personal data, and therefore the very real human beings, being mined every second of every day.
I Want to be Your Distraction