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The Tommyknockers in my phone

I’m an enduring fan of Stephen King books. A few years ago (4 years to the day in fact) I bought a job lot of 49 books, and have been gradually working my way through them. Facebook has a nifty feature whereby it reminds you of something you have said or done on this day any number of years ago. Today, it reminded me of the purchasing of these books. I decided to comment on it that I was still working my way through these, currently reading The Tommyknockers. I did not expect my Google Keyboard to know such a word, and so began to type it manually. I typed The, and pressed space. The Google Keyboard, as it does, suggested the next word. The next word it suggested was Tommyknockers.

For those that have not read the book, The Tommyknockers is about the discovery of a strange alien device which pervades the surrounding town. Strange green light enters objects, and people’s minds are suddenly opened to the world. Everyone knows everything; people can subconsciously read each-others minds, know everyone’s secrets. Great technological advances are made, the green light guiding people in how to build devices capable of destroying the world. The person discovering the alien artefact recalls a rhyme from her childhood:

“Late last night and the night before, Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.
I want to go out, don’t know if I can, ‘Cause I’m so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.”

She begins to refer to the strange presence she feels as the Tommyknockers, and due to the psychic spread of information, the term is adopted by all those affected by the green light.

How did my phone know that the sentence “I’m currently reading” should be completed with “The Tommyknockers”? I purchased the book in a job lot 4 years ago; it is not a current purchase in any of my online history. It is also a physical book, not a Kindle or e-reader file. I have not been especially vocal about my reading- when I went to Japan, my travelling companion asked me what I was reading and I responded The Tommyknockers. I think I made an offhand comment about it being very long and slightly rambling (sorry Stephen King, I know I’m not one to be casting stones about rambling literary pieces).

It is well known that Google collects various pieces of information on us (I’ve previously written about this here: https://vicharkness.co.uk/2015/10/05/thinking-about-how-much-your-phone-knows-about-you/). I decided to have a little dig to try and establish how Google knows that I am reading The Tommyknockers.

The most likely culprit seemed to be audio recording. A few years ago there was a “scandal” that Google listens to what we say around our phones. This did not come as a shock to me, as for services such as voice commands to work, the phone has to be listening to you. I do not make use of voice commands, and a quick check for what audio Google has (formally) collected on me reveals that I have this service turned off.

Interesting. Next up, I checked the activity feed- perhaps a prior search for it had slipped my mind?

Nope. The only result was the Facebook comment I made this morning about upon discovering the suggestion. Perhaps I have mentioned it on Facebook Messenger, my main online communications tool?

The same for the other chat applications I use. No mentions of the Tommyknockers. So, where has this knowledge of my reading habits come from? My guess would be that something illicit is going on. As I see it, the options are:

1. Google is recording audio even when this setting is turned off
2. Google is leveraging shared third party content to try and tie my Google accounts together (I use separate accounts for my phone and PC, and I have somewhere mentioned it via PC)
3. Google is making use of my phone camera

I’m unsure if it is the first or third option. The first is worrying from a privacy point of view, but surely someone would have noticed this before me? The second seems like something that Google may well be doing as a matter of practice- being able to track a person consistently in their journey across the web is big business. The third option, worryingly, seems quite viable to me. I do not have a lamp in my bedroom, and so it is not uncommon for me to read using my phone light. This light is sat adjacent to the camera, meaning that when I prop the phone up to shine the torch on my book, the camera is also pointed at it. I also tend to have my phone with me a lot of the time, and so the camera could easily have caught glances of the book.

A quick Google search (perhaps fittingly) suggests that people do not have concerns about illicit camera feed capture on mobile phones. There is the cultural meme of covering laptop cameras so that the FBI cannot spy on you- perhaps this fear is not entirely unfounded. Perhaps the Tommyknockers really are always watching. Running a basic optical character recognition algorithm over phone camera feeds (and likely also facial recognition) would reveal my reading habits easily. The Tommyknockers are wherever my phone is.

It does seem somehow appropriate that the term to be suggested by an all knowing, all seeing, ever present “being” would be Tommyknockers. The book itself could make a good allegory for the knowledge afforded to us by the tech giants, albeit spread via small devices in our pockets rather than green light. As with most things in my life, this probably won’t force me to change my habits. I suppose that I have already made peace with the price of this knowledge; surrendering my mind and soul to the Tommyknockers. In the words of Ruth McCausland in the book, I have “become”.

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