iPhone's voice-recognition software ignores (but understands) "abortion" and "rape"

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
iPhone's voice-recognition software ignores (but understands) "abortion" and "rape"



Siri Failures, Illustrated.

The recent illustrations of Siri, the iPhone 4S voice-recognition based assistant, failing to provide information to users about abortion, birth control, help after rape and help with domestic violence has gotten a lot of notice. Yesterday’s post with screenshots from a Twitter conversation I was a part of has netted 200+ notes the last I looked.

There have been a number of arguments, three of which compelled me. The first was “why aren’t there screenshots?” Here, you have them, in spades. The second two:

  • “It’s just a phone, why do you expect it do all this?”
    Siri can answer a lot of health related questions perfectly well, why shouldn’t we expect it to be able to answer reproductive health related queries too? Why treat reproductive health as a walled-off garden that the general public can’t or shouldn’t be exposed to? It’s not simply that in some places Siri has sent people to distant anti-choice fake clinics when they’ve asked where they can get abortions (and there are providers near to them) it’s also that in some locations (including mine) Siri refuses to disclose abortion clinic locations at all. Watch:


Issues Pages: 
Catchfire Catchfire's picture


10 things the iPhone Siri will help you get instead of an abortion

1. Viagra.

2. Hospitals to go to if you’ve had an erection lasting for more than 5 hours.
3. Places you might be able to score marijuana.
4. Where to dump a body: in Brooklyn, it recommends a smelting plant in New Jersey.
5. The meaning of life: Siri will alternately quote from Douglas Adams (42) or Monty Python’s “The Meaning Of Life.”
6. What to do if a hamster is caught in your rectum: in D.C., she’ll direct you to Charming Cherries Escort Service.
7. Asked how to obtain a free blow job in D.C., she’ll direct you to the same escort service. (We doubt that they are free.)
8. If you’d like to see a naked woman in Brooklyn, Siri will suggest a variety of Manhattan-based strip clubs.
9. If you’re in Queens and seeking breast implants, she’ll recommend 4 local plastic surgeons.
10. But if you ask Siri about vaginoplasty, she’ll scold you about your language.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

More sexist iPhone software: Girls around me

“He’s become obsessed with this app. It’s creepy.”

I sputtered, I nevered, and I denied it, but it was true. I had become obsessed with Girls Around Me, an app that perfectly distills many of the most worrying issues related to social networking, privacy and the rise of the smartphone into a perfect case study that anyone can understand.

It’s an app that can be interpreted many ways. It is as innocent as it is insidious; it is just as likely to be reacted to with laughter as it is with tears; it is as much of a novelty as it has the potential to be used a tool for rapists and stalkers.

And more than anything, it’s a wake-up call about privacy....


Girls Around Me is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity: whether it be parties, clubs, deals, or what have you. When you load it up, the first thing Girls Around Me does is figure out where you are and load up a Google Map centered around your location. The rest of the interface is very simple: in the top left corner, there’s a button that looks like a radar display, at the right corner, there’s a fuel meter (used to fund the app’s freemium model), and on the bottom left is a button that allows you to specify between whether you’re interested in women, men or both.


It’s when you push the radar button that Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin. I pressed the button for my friends. Immediately, Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area.

The above story got Foursquare to terminate API access to the app.



I'm confused.  Is the end user of this app encouraged to stalk girls, or women who are referred to as "girls" because they can be labelled, diminished and perceived as helpless against the incredible magnetism of the heterosexual male?

Completely disgusted minds want to know.

wage zombie

So who's to blame here?  Girls Around Me?  Or Facebook and Foursquare?  Or are they just incidentals and this is more abot our sexist society?

I read a similar article years ago.  The writed mentioned that he saw a woman taking a picture in Golden Gate park in SF.  So then he looked on Flickr (I think) at photos taken that day geolocated in GG Park, found her photo, found her photostream, found a bunch of interior photos of an apartment geolocated together (which could be assumed to be where she lives).  All this because the iphone automatically geocodes any photos it takes (can be turned off).

The writer in that situation was not looking to stalk anyone, he was interested in privacy.

I remember a website called pleaserobmyhouse.com (or something like that) that was pulling in twitter messages where people were talking about going on trips.  Also there was a Firefox plugin a year or two ago that allowed you to hack people's facebook accounts.  I downloaded and used it.  If I was at a coffee shop the app would tell me who was logged in to facebook that I could hack.  Then I would go in and post a polite status message for them, saying they had been hacked and that it wasn't safe to use facebook via http on public wifi (and that I didn't do anything else, just wanted them to be more careful).

A lot of those apps were created to shake people up and help them understand that anything that happens online is public.  I'm not saying Girls Around Me was one of those apps.

But the problem here is not one app.  The problem is people are actively broadcasting their personal information whether they know it or not.  People are being careless, and they're going to get burned for it.  IMO apps like Girls Around Me demonstrate the world we currently live in.

So I don't have a problem with this app really.

wage zombie

If the app was called "Girls Around Me that I Can Stalk" it would not have passed Apple's approval process.

If the app didn't have the misogynist imagery, and was called New Friend Finder, and didn't allow you to filter by gender, it probably would not be getting much attention, even though all the features would still be available.  Would FourSquare have blocked New Friend Finder?  Doubtful.

The makers of the app followed all the protocols of society.  The imagery they used was not anything uncommon, and can be found far and wide on products, in marketing, etc.  The name "Girls Around Me" could be the name of a prime time tv show.  The use of the public APIs was also nothing too controversial.  The whole point of checking into FourSquare is to publically broadcast your location and loyalty to a business.  So app developers that take that information and mash it up are doing FourSquare and the internet at large a favour.

So this company did a bunch of things which are encouraged by the mainstream, they mashed these things together, and came up with something that is clearly going too far.  FourSquare terminated their API access after one widely read article.

I don't know what it is, if maybe people just want to be famous or what.  But I think it's an indicator that we're living in a cognitive dissonance dreamland here.  These app developers "did everything right" and ended up with a product that makes people feel sick.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

@Rebecca West Yes, the app enables you to discover and potentially stalk "girls" who have allowed their geolocation info to become public through facebook or foursquare. Basically it exposes a security leak to which we've all become accustomed and uses it for general sexist purposes.

[quote=wage zombie]IMO apps like Girls Around Me demonstrate the world we currently live in.[/quote]

This is my basic stance as well. I think it's interesting and productive, however, to expose how sexism works in typically unmarked categories like technology. Radical feminist Luce Irigaray is frequently ridiculed for a speculative footnote (on which much pressure has been put by sexist assholes with an agenda) which stated that E=mc2 might be a gendered equation. It sounds preposterous, but why? Imo, technology functions in the same way: men (most likely) made it, so why wouldn't it contain the same patriarchal assumptions are culture generally operates under? So in that sense, the app is revelatory rather than an ethical abberation.

However, I do have a "problem" with it in the same way I have a "problem" with other misogynist media we're constantly bombarded with: like Girls Gone Wild, Maxim, AXE commercials, etc. I'm glad the app has been defanged, but you're right: the problem, as always, is patrarchy (and privacy). Not some opportunistic Russian app programmer.


Catchfire wrote:

@Rebecca West Yes, the app enables you to discover and potentially stalk "girls" who have allowed their geolocation info to become public through facebook or foursquare. Basically it exposes a security leak to which we've all become accustomed and uses it for general sexist purposes.

Sorry -- I didn't have my sarcasm app loaded when I posted that.  I'm not confused, just really really pissed.