Rush Limbaugh, Siri, and the wrath of the technocrati
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On his Tuesday radio broadcast, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh described a technical problem with his iPhone and Apple's Siri voice assistant, encountered on his drive to work that morning.
Since then, he's been abused, mocked, and disbelieved on many of Apple techsites and online forums for purportedly claiming to have been hacked, and blaming the hack on either the Obama administration or, to paraphrase former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Vast Leftwing Conspiracy. Many of the bloggers and commenters outright say he's simply a liar, having made up the story out of whole cloth.
Limbaugh posted on his website the next day a brief update about his follow-up experience Tuesday afternoon, which clearly put the event into the "unexplained glitch" category: "But I got in the car yesterday afternoon and headed to the airport....So I tried some dictation, and it was perfect. That stuff that happened yesterday morning has not happened since. It was flawless yesterday afternoon in the car, same setup, Verizon hot spot with my Bluetooth phone system in the car, perfect."
A typical response to Limbaugh's original account is that of MacGasm's Corey Tamas, a self-described "tech journalist," who gave his post the headline "Limbaugh As Clueless About Siri As He Is About Most Things."
The headline clearly implies that Limbaugh knows little or nothing about Siri and that, presumably, Tamas can fill in this yawning knowledge gap and account for the technical problem that Limbaugh says he encountered.
"In a story I feel like I've waited my entire professional life to cover, Rush Limbaugh has decided to take aim at Siri and continues to entrench his legendary posture of saying things which take a gigantic, steaming dump on simple logic," Tama writes.
Yet nowhere in his post does Tamas explain how Limbaugh is wrong, technically un-informed or illogical. And he actually concedes two points, apparently unaware that he's doing so, that would support the idea that Limbaugh could have been targeted. "[I]t's a tricky hack to mess with someone's phone in that way... but far from impossible," Tomas writes, without giving the slightest technical explanation of just how it could be done. And secondly, "With the Old-Testament-Level of ill-will Rush has created for himself among many minorities (and among women, who are not exactly what you'd call a "minority"), it's not hard to imagine someone might make it their little OCD project to mess with Rush's iPhone," Tamas writes.
"Despite how tempting it would be to enter into a long-winded diatribe about Rush's politics, we are still just a tech blog and that discussion falls outside the parameters of what we want to be known for," he concludes, still without ever engaging in any technical analysis of Limbaugh's account. "I'm not a political analyst, but I am a writer with a decade and a half of professional tenure behind me... and I can say that rants are both the easiest to write and are the most popular among readers, but are almost always the hallmark of a writer with poor analytical skills."
If politicians were tech companies
Apparently calling someone "clueless," and prone to "saying things which take a gigantic, steaming dump on logic," and the creator of an "Old-Testament-Level of ill-will" doesn't qualify as ranting or as an indicator of "poor analytical skills."
Tamas' final non-technical conclusion: "Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled [sic] against Limbaugh for his epic iPhone story is one he rarely hears: It was pretty boring."
But even a cursory reading of the radio show's transcript, posted at RushLimbaugh.com reveals something much more like the befuddlement of a "consumer power user," as Limbaugh terms himself, over encountering a technical problem that he had not run into before.
In Limbaugh's account, he's on his way to work Tuesday morning trying to do voice dictation, something he's done in the past without problem, using his iPhone, Siri, and his in-car Wi-Fi and LTE connections. First, nothing happens and then he gets transcriptions that bear no resemblance to what he spoke aloud.
Following along in Limbaugh's account, his first conclusion is that something is wrong with Apple's Siri servers: the "system is down" he thought. Then, after seeing the strange Siri transcriptions of his spoken words, he thinks that possibly "someone hacked" Apple's Siri servers and that it must be affecting many other iPhone users. It's Limbaugh's listeners, in calls and emails, that later raise the issue of Limbaugh himself being personally targeted and personally hacked. But he finds all of these latter speculations "unsatisfactory."
Here's how he begins his description: "Now, if there is anybody in this audience listening that writes for an Apple or high-tech blog -- or if there is anybody listening to this program that works for or at Apple, Incorporated -- you have to hear what happened to me this morning."
There's no suggestion of being hacked or targeted, no hint of a conspiracy. It reads much more like an end user asking more experienced users for technical help. Overall, no one would mistake the blogosphere's response as that of the New Testament's Good Samaritan.
Limbaugh describes his mobile system in the car: he uses an iPhone 4S, with the car's built-in Bluetooth entertainment system, and a Wi-Fi connection to a "Verizon LTE hotspot," presumably the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4620L (reviewed recently by PC Magazine) or something very like it.
He describes, accurately, how Apple's Siri dictation feature works (you can compare it with Smartplanet's more detailed account from November 2011): "[The way that] Apple iPhone dictation works is you hit the microphone button on your keyboard, and that immediately establishes an online connection with Apple servers somewhere. The dictation does not occur, the translation does not occur in the phone. What you say is transmitted at whatever connection speed you're using -- 3G, 4G, or Wi-Fi -- to Apple servers wherever they are. The speech is then transcribed to text by a company called Nuance, which makes Dragon Dictation, and that's the voice-to-text aspect of Siri in the iPhone. So you say, "Testing one, two, three" and hit the microphone button. Apple's servers then transcribe it and send it back to you, and it displays on your screen."
When his iPhone is paired to the car's Bluetooth setup, "if I'm listening to the radio, for example -- the moment I hit the microphone [the Siri icon] on the iPhone, the radio is muted, because a phone call is being made, essentially. The phone system via Bluetooth is used to send my voice transcription out to Apple and back [based on his network description, this is probably not the case: via Bluetooth, the car's radio is being automatically muted, but the iPhone itself is presumably connecting via Wi-Fi to the LTE hotspot]. When it comes back [presumably meaning 'when the dictation text is displayed'] and the connection is finished, then the audio from the radio resumes."
He's used the entire arrangement, and Siri dictation, for some time and "Up until today, it worked flawlessly."
On Tuesday morning in the car, Limbaugh tries to reply to "some stuff" sent by Kathryn (presumably his wife). "I attempt dictation, and nothing happens. I hit the microphone button and I get the three beeps and no connection. It's not working. So I say, 'Ah, damn it, the system's down. Something's wrong with the servers,' but I keep trying," he tells his listeners.
On his third attempt, his spoken words are sent off, but what then appears on his iPhone screen - the "translation" of his speech into text - is "Obama's minions are taking over and there's nothing you can do about it," he recounts. "And I hadn't said anything like that!"
He notices that the "audio on the radio did not un-mute. The audio on the radio never came back." He switches the radio from satellite to standard AM and finds the radio is working fine. "I thought, 'Man, something's really not right,'" he says.
Using Siri, he repeats the reply to his wife. "What came back to me the second time was totally unrelated to anything I had said. It was talking about wind power and Obama and, 'You don't have a chance.'" It's at this point, that he suspects that Apple's backend system may have been hacked. "And I said to myself, 'You know, somebody's hacked Apple's servers. I'm gonna get in there [to the office].' I said, 'I can't wait to get to work and fire up some of these Apple blogs because I'll bet you this has been going on all morning and I'll betcha it's a big story that Apple's servers have been hacked.'"
He tries yet again to reply to his wife. "The third thing [transcription] which came back had nothing to do with politics," he says. But it also had nothing to do with his spoken reply.
He finally reaches the office, and connects his iPhone to the internal Wi-Fi network, and starts dictating: "it's flawless. It's perfect. It was only in my car that this happened."
He types up a brief account of what happened and emails it to "some computer people" asking for feedback. "I said, 'What could possibly explain this?' And the answers I got back ranged from, "You've been hacked," to, "Somebody got into your car," to, "Somebody's tampered with the Bluetooth module." Other suggestions, he says, were "Somebody's done something. They're sending you a message that they can do it," "Your Bluetooth module is so totally defective that you need a new one," and "There's something wrong with the LTE hotspot."
Limbaugh's response is interesting: "There was no answer that was satisfactory."
He didn't expand on why he found them unsatisfactory. But it's clear that the suggestion he'd been hacked was one of the suggestions he found unsatisfying to explain the events he encountered.
He notes again that Siri works by offloading the voice transcription to backend servers. Given that fact, he then wonders "Could it be that somebody at Apple can ID my phone, knows when I'm voice transcribing and can send something back? Could that possibly be? Who knows? I have no idea."
The issue of what information Apple collects and stores from iPhone and iPad users, including what Siri adds to that information, has been a persistent Internet meme.
"I don't have any other theories, but I sent this off to two people [the aforementioned 'computer people?'] who might, and none of them could believe it but they then started trying to explain it to me what various things could exist to explain this," Limbaugh says. "But it was the first two [text transcriptions] that came back that specifically mentioned Obama."
He says a bit later, "But the most common suggestion I got from the people I sent it to was, 'You've got a Bluetooth problem here. There's something wrong with Bluetooth.' That may be, but for ["]Obama and his minions["] to end up in a translated voice-to-text message when I didn't say Obama, I didn't say minions, I didn't say anything about any of that, the dictation's never been that far off."
But the blogosphere drew its own conclusions. "Rush Limbaugh: My iPhone 4S Was Hacked," was the headline at AppAdvice. "Rush Limbaugh Says Obama's Minions Hacked Siri," was the headline for Buster Heine's story at CultOfMac.
Heine declares that Limbaugh "thinks the main culprit is Obama's minions trying to give him the spooks. I wish we were creative enough to make this up, but it's a "true" story.... if by true, you mean that Rush Limbaugh actually said something this wacky." In fact, as the show's transcript makes clear, Limbaugh doesn't think that and didn't say it.
One user, mtalsma, started a thread at MacRumors about Limbaugh's experience, with a link to an account of it at TheBlaze. Somewhat naively, he said he was "not trying to start a thread on politics or the semantics of talk radio personalities."
"To me, it's pretty crazy," mtalsma posted. "I think someone somehow hacked into Apple's servers and decided to mess with him. Limbaugh stated he had no way to prove this happened (should've taken screenshots), however I don't think there'd be any reason to make it up."
"That's seriously the dumbest thing I've ever heard," posted ppleguy123, without clarifying whether he was referring to mtalsma's post or Limbaugh's account.
Any number of commenters simply branded Limbaugh a liar. A typical post was this one by entatlrg: "Rush loudmouth is a proven liar many times over, and a bumbling idiot, how could anyone believe he's telling the truth this time. And for all the millions it could happen to, it happens to him? Lol, No."
One poster, scaredpoet, condemned Limbaugh for not accepting the conflicting suggestions and analyses offered by "IT guys." "Right, so Rush Limbaugh, the guy who doesn't really have his head on straight politically, thinks he knows better about IT than the IT guys... and even though all this of this allegedly happened only in his car with his funky hotspot-bluetooth-jenga-puzzle of a weird setup, and NOT anywhere else, that clearly means to him that those hippies at Apple are to blame. Real smart," he sneered. "I call BS on the whole thing."
At TheBlaze, in the comments section, HuckleberryFriend announced "With all this talk about hacking, why doesn't anyone mention the obvious? Bad acoustics and/or background noise in the car. Hacking is hard and unlikely. Microphone problems are extremely common, especially in a car."
Unless one simply has faith that Limbaugh invented his Siri problem, it appears to have been nothing more than one of the countless technical and often unexplained techno-glitches that fill online forums and user sites.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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