Privacy SOS

Is my iPhone listening to me?


The other night I was getting ready to leave my partner’s house to go home. I know how to get from their place to mine without any assistance, so I didn’t look up directions on my phone. I didn’t text anyone to say I was about to go home. Some nights I stay over at my partner’s place and some nights I don’t. In other words, it seemed like there was no way my phone could have known that I was about to get into my car and drive back to my place. And yet, as I walked out the door, I looked at my iPhone and found a push notification alerting me that traffic to my home address was looking normal.

I did not like that. How the hell did my phone know I was about to drive home? Did it listen to me?

Even though I work full time as a privacy advocate, there are lots of things on my mind, so I sort of forgot about this incident—that is, until this morning, when it happened again.

I normally take public transit or bike to work. This morning I was running a little late and my roommate suggested we drive to get coffee together. I said aloud, “If the bus is on time, I can take it. Otherwise could you drop me off downtown?” She agreed.

As I walked toward the door to leave I looked down at my phone. Again, there was a push notification from Apple Maps (an app I have never once used). It read: “16 minutes to Congress St.; Traffic is normal right now.” This time I took a screenshot, which I’ve posted above.

How on earth could my iPhone have known that I wasn’t going to take the bus this morning, and that I was going to drive downtown instead?

Apple’s website includes a page on location tracking and privacy. On that page, it says:

Frequent Locations: To learn places that are significant to you, your iOS device will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them. This data is kept solely on your device and won’t be sent to Apple without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing.

But in both cases, these alerts appeared only after I had verbally announced my intention to drive somewhere, either home or to work. In neither case was this a routine event; I often sleep over at my partner’s place, and I usually take public transit or ride my bike to work. Therefore the only possibility that makes any sense to me is that my phone is listening, heard me tell my partner I was going home and ask if my roommate could drop me off at work, and then provided me with up to date traffic reports to those two destinations.

In neither case was it desirable. I don’t appreciate it; if I want to know what traffic looks like, I’ll check it out myself. I don’t want my phone listening to me. I’ve never once used Siri in part because of that preference.

Of course, it could be a (two-time) fluke, so I’m curious to hear from others with iPhones. If you’ve had a similar experience, let me know. Also please get in touch if you know how my phone might be deducing these intensely personal things about me, if it’s not actually listening.

Location information is extremely sensitive. That’s made chillingly clear when your phone, practically an extra limb for many of us, starts giving you information about not just where you are or in response to commands you’ve given it, but about where you’re about to go, without having been asked.

Update: CNET explains how you can turn off predictive traffic alerts. That’s great, but the predictive traffic alert feature doesn’t fully explain these two incidents. After all, there’s nothing routine about the trips I was making. And I gave the phone no indication that I was about to drive somewhere, besides talking about driving in the vicinity of the phone.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.