Shhhh, my Android phone is listening in…

Since Google purchased hardware heavyweight Motorola, we’ve been paying close attention, expecting something new and fancy to come along,and it sounds like the Moto X is it. And based on the leaked video that came out this week, it sounds like the Moto X will be paying close attention to us,too.

The feature that’s getting a lot of attention is that the phone will always be listening for commands, even when it’s just sitting therewith the screen off.

Anyone who has watched any of the versions of Star Trek from The Next Generation on knows that by saying “Computer!” at the beginning of a sentence, you are telling the computer that the next thing you’re about to say is a command. Of course, that means that the computer is always sitting there listening, just waiting to be of service. That’s how it works in the Federation.

With that in mind, I’m not so sure why I feel uneasy about my Android device doing exactly the same thing. Sure, I’d love the ability to instantly get information from the Internet without having to pick up my device, unlock it and start typing. But do I really want to have a device that’s capable ofpaying attention to me all of the time? I mean, it’s bad enough that myFuelband may be paying attention to my…ahem, intimate moments. Having a phone that will sit and listen in on all of my inane chit chat and embarrassing jokes just seems like too much.

If you’re so inclined, you can take the idea to an extreme and think of this as a kind of stealth surveillance device: while the phone is listening for commands, it could also be sitting there listening for other keywords, and building up a security profile on you and the people around you. The end result could be some sort of panopticon-style security state, with your phone relaying information directly to Big Brother. Likely? No. But for the tinfoil hat brigade, it’s pretty good fodder.

A more moderate (and to my mind more likely) concern would be that your phone would continue the process of building a consumer profile of you based on your real-life conversations (in addition to your online activity). Coupled with location awareness thanks to the GPS, it could figure out your favourite beer (based on the fact that you ordered four of them at the pub), what you thought of the movie you watched last night (based on your sarcastic commentary), and which stores at the mall you claim to hate (based on your snotty asides to your friends). And then, of course, continue to pitch you ads based on what it thinks your preferences will be.

The nastier semi-realistic concern, of course, is that rogue apps will tap into your new phone’s ability to constantly monitor the ambient audio, and then use that in some malevolent way. (I’m not naïve enough to ignore the fact that a rogue app could do that already thanks to the fact that every Android device under the sun already has a built-in microphone. But if the phone makes it easier by already having a subsystem that’s doing ambient speech conversion, it feels a little less comfortable.)

In the short term this may not even be an issue, however. I’ve spent many hours arguing with my voice-activated hands-free speaker in the car, which often asks me what I want to do when someone on the radio says something that’s NOTHING LIKE the voice command trigger. You have to wonder how many times your phone offers up some tidbit of seemingly unsolicited information (or fails to properly translate what you’re saying whenever you’re in a room that’s not as quiet as an anechoic chamber) before you dig into the settings to just turn the feature off altogether.

Just to be safe, though, once I get my hands on the Moto X, I will probably throw it into a soundproof box whenever I want to have a private conversation with my wife. It’s the only reasonable course of action.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Sean Carruthers
Sean Carruthers
Sean Carruthers is a freelance writer, video producer and host based in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, he was a Senior Producer at, where he was responsible for the conception, writing, production and editing of a number of web video shows, including Lab Rats, How Do I?, Status Update, The Noob, and more.

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