• 07.16.13

Could This Phone Prevent Violence From Escalating?

A new Android device promises to “always be listening” to its surroundings. Can it, and devices like it, keep us safer while maintaining our privacy?

Could This Phone Prevent Violence From Escalating?

It’s a question that technologists must ask: can monitoring technology prevent tragedies like the one that happened in Florida in February 2012 from becoming lethal while maintaining our privacy? We know that police districts that require their officers to wear always-on cameras see marked decreases in complaints filed against them by citizens. What if this same technology became commonplace, for everyone?


According to leaks, the latest not-so-secret flagship Android phone has an always-on listening mode. In theory, a constant state of listening could allow the Moto-X to perform certain simple functions without any taps, even helping to negate the constant swipes on the lock screen. With every site that reported on the leaked feature, however, came the predictable and obvious response in the comments: What is this actually good for? Do people really not care about their devices eavesdropping?

Asked whether an always-on listening feature will be accepted by general consumers, senior editor Chris Ziegler at The Verge, responded, “I think it’s going to depend almost entirely on how it’s marketed. ‘The phone is listening to you at all times’ is not a message that’s going to resonate with potential customers in a positive way. They’ll need to be more creative than that.”

Consumers are already ill at ease after NSA’s PRISM program was uncovered, and the idea of your individual electronics (not just your web services) logging detailed personal metadata may put a finer point on the paranoia. But there is some precedent for devices that are “aware” of their owners’ non-digital doings.

Microsoft’s controversial Xbox One will also come with an always-listening element, the Kinect. Described as listening in a limited capacity, having the peripheral be available will allow users to turn on and off the console with their voice, in addition to other functions. Backtracking on user demands like Internet connectivity and game sharing, always listening wasn’t changed, cited as motion/sensor controls being a next generation gaming experience gamers were craving.

Google Glass doesn’t currently have an always-listening feature yet, but it’s being tested and is available via hack, clearly a goal Google would like to move toward. LG also has an upcoming device rumored to incorporate always-on. David Pierce, a product reviewer for The Verge, echos Chris Zeigler’s earlier point, but adds “…until we’re sure our phones aren’t collecting data from our pockets, they’re going to worry a lot of people–especially in light of recent revelations about the data that’s already being collected. Eventually I think we’ll reach a middle ground that makes sense, but both sides need to tread lightly until then.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has said consumers don’t want privacy. But what he’s really saying is that sometimes the value of privacy is exceeded by the value an “aware” machine can add. Joining Facebook, for example, does require you to sacrifice some personal data–but if that’s the conduit through which you met your wife, got that new job, or caught a killer deal on a vacation, then you might consider the trade worthwhile.

The only excusable instances of “machine awareness” that we can think of pertain to safety. If a device could listen for certain markers in speech, or certain phrases that indicate panic–raised voices, epithets, cursing–it could alert friends, family members, or authorities that the user is in danger but is apparently unable to summon help themselves.


For elderly users this adds another dimension of comfort as well; First Alert pendants and “help” buttons located around senior citizens’ centers aren’t always accessible when things go wrong. We can’t help but imagine how technology like this could reduce the likelihood of tragedies like the one in Florida, keeping an accurate voice record of what transpired, or simply alerting neighbors that an altercation was taking place nearby. Let’s hope Motorola finds a way to use this technology to insure us against ourselves–not invade our private lives.

[Image: Flickr user WIll Temple]

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.