Now Listening

Yes, I know I’m a couple of years late on this one, but I’ve got an excuse.

I’m talking about the “Now Playing” feature on Pixel phones.

For those of you who don’t have Pixels, “Now Playing” runs in the background and identifies music playing nearby. When the phone is locked, it will display titles and performers on the lock screen.

Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s got its uses–which is part of the problem. Not all of those uses are necessarily for the good of the phone’s owner. But I’ll get back to that.

“But, wait,” someone out there is undoubtedly saying, “hasn’t Casey had a Pixel for over a year? Why’s he only now getting around to ‘Now Playing’?”

Simple: Until a few weeks ago, I kept the phone in a belt pouch. It couldn’t hear a thing unless I took it out. However, I’ve now switched to a phone holster-and-case combination for convenience and protection. Now “Now Playing” can hear much better.

And I’m starting to wonder about the ethics of feature.

A quick digression: According to Google, they don’t see any. The phone periodically downloads a database of songs, all recognition is done on the device, and the history is only stored locally.

The database comes from Google Play Music–it’s based primarily on what tracks are being played there. This naturally means that “Now Playing” can only recognize popular music (for some values of “popular”). (According to one source, the database is also tuned to accommodate regional preferences, based on where the phone was purchased.)

The history on my phone suggests that to be an accurate description. Many of the songs I hear on the radio in the car show up on the list, as does much of the music that other people are playing at work.

A few anime opening and closing credit songs show up. But only for very popular shows; nothing from the current season. Snippets of background music from TV shows turn up in the history.

My tastes in radio tend toward oldies channels. Not much swing shows up in my “Now Playing” history. Most of the music from the 70s and 80s does show up–but primarily the tracks that charted at some point. Fringe material, not so much. Case in point: the Dark Wave show on SiriusXM features “goth, post-punk, and industrial”. Not a single track from last week’s episode made it onto my phone. (Correction on deeper inspection: a few show up in misidentified form.)

I’m inclined to think the failures are a good thing. To some extent, some inaccuracy improves the security of the system.

Let’s face it: how willing are you to believe Google doesn’t have access to your history? Because any sort of halfway competent Big Data miner could match up that history with radio station playlists, Muzak tracklists, and other data to create a profile of your musical tastes and physical movement, especially when paired with data from Maps. Whether that would give an accurate impression of your other tastes is a matter of opinion, but how many advertisers would be willing to buy that information? Quite a few, I’d bet.

Nor does Google make it easy to clean up the history. Once you find it–buried in Settings, not in an app–you can delete individual tracks or wipe the entire history. But there’s no way to search and remove those embarrassing low points. Want to get rid of last month’s early Madonna binge? You’ll have to do it one song at a time or nuke the whole historical record.

No provision for a timed delete (“On the first of the month, delete everything older than two months.”) Not even “Wipe the entire history once a month.”

And don’t forget: it’s always listening. Well, okay, popping in once a minute or so. I imagine certain political figures would love to get their hands on a list of people whose phones are hearing a lot of Latin pop. There are all sorts of interesting, non-advertising ways to use that kind of data.

Come to think of it, Google must know at least which phones are pulling down track databases from, let’s call them “countries of interest”. Would that be data that DHS could requisition, either legally or covertly? They’d certainly find uses for it.

Sure, I’m a bit paranoid. These days that’s a survival trait.

Not paranoid enough to turn off “Now Playing”. Not yet, anyway.

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