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What Does Your Smartphone Really Know About You

October 25, 2017


In this ever-increasing digital world, it has been said that your smartphone knows more about you than your significant other.  I would argue that your smartphone knows more about you than you may know about yourself and here’s why.  Depending on your model, your smartphone recognizes your voice and knows who you are, where you live and work, where you have been, who your friends are, where they are right now, how long you slept last night, if you went to the gym today, what you bought and where you bought it, who you talk to, where you ate lunch and even your current mood.  These are just the tip of the iceberg.  At this very moment, your phone is most likely tracking your location, counting your steps, and recording any voice commands you make. It is mind boggling how much data is being captured every second on a device originally designed to make a simple phone call. 




Most phones sold in the world today are smartphones. So, you ask what makes a smartphone smart? Simply put, it isn't just a phone any more but rather an all in one computing device. Say, I want to take a photo of the kids, check email, or post on social media, I can do all that on my phone. I can even look at my calendar, check the weather, get driving directions to my next appointment, remotely start my car, and adjust the inside temperature all from my phone.  I can dim the lights, adjust the thermostat, turn on the TV or music, unlock doors, monitor security cameras and even my baby monitor.  While most of these functions happen through apps, let’s see what our smartphone is tracking in real time.  


As shown below, your phone has been designed with many sensors that collect specific data points used in some of the cool features we enjoy. Sensor availability varies from device to device so please refer to the manufacturer's website for details of your model. 




Not all these sensors are self-explanatory, so we will take a few of the most popular and break down what information they capture and how that data may be used.



Accelerometer able to detect changes in orientation and tells the screen to rotate. Reports: continuously


Gyroscope is also used for tracking rotation but with much greater accuracy.  Gaming apps and Google Sky Map uses the gyroscope data for precise results. Reports: Continuously


Magnetometer is used to detect magnetic fields for simple orientation relative to the Earth’s North Pole and used in mapping apps.  Reports: continuously


Proximity sensor detects the position of the ear/cheek with respect to the screen using a small beam of light.  If the light bounces back, it is assumed you are on a call. This causes your screen to dim or turn off and stops accidental touch, surfing, music, and video during a call saving battery life.  Reports: on change


Light Sensors measure the ambient light in your environment and automatically adjusts your display’s brightness saving battery life.  Reports: on change


Barometer is used to measure atmospheric pressure to determine altitude and weather changes.  The barometer works in tandem with GPS to improve accuracy. Reports: continuously


Thermometer, as we all know, measures the ambient room temperature but did you know that most phones have more than one thermometer?  In addition to the traditional use, many phones also monitor their internal temperature to shut down the device when overheated. Reports: on change


Pedometer is used for counting the user’s steps while recording the date/time.  Reports: on movement


Heart Rate Monitor is used to measure the user’s pulse by placing a finger on the display or home button to detect the pulsations of the blood vessels inside one’s finger.  Reports: on demand


Fingerprint identity, my favorite, is used for security to identify the phone’s owner.  This can be used to “wake up” the phone or for authorizing downloads and purchases.  Reports: on demand


Global Positioning System (GPS) use satellite scanning to calculate our location, speed, distance, and elevation.  It works together with other sensors for better accuracy.  Reports: on change


Lasers used for autofocusing, distance measurements, bar-code scanners, TV remotes and the like. Reports: on demand


Iris Scanner (and soon facial recognition) are used to unlock your phone and for security much like the current finger print scanners.


Levels of accuracy for the recorded data points depend largely on the model and age of your phone.  Technology keeps moving us in the direction of smaller and smarter while using less power.  Some of these sensors can drain your battery life so we have been given some options to turn them off.  A great example would be GPS.  Most guides for saving battery life will include turning off GPS while not in use. 


As you can see, it is a bit scary but rather fascinating just how much information your phone is recording all the time.  My three-year-old iPhone knows every password I’ve entered, every text, every email and every voice command I feed Siri.  Who, incidentally, doesn’t speak Southern but that’s or another article.   My phone also knows every place I’ve travelled, every restaurant I’ve dined, every bill I’ve paid online including my account and banking information, and every website I surfed.  It knows where I shop and how long I spent standing in front of the shoe rack at Kohl’s checking out winter boots. It essentially records everything I’ve ever entered on the device in addition to all the sensor data which knows my fingerprints, retina scan, that I’m a couch potato and I don’t get along with Siri. 


Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d be struggling to tell you where I ate lunch last week much less three years ago.  I couldn’t tell you my current elevation, number of steps I’ve made today, GPS coordinates or even the temperature in my office.  My phone knows all those things about me not only at the current time but every second of every day since I’ve owned it.  Yes, I’m convinced my phone is smarter than me.  Heck, I may let my phone pick out my next husband……Just kidding guys.  But seriously, our phones are amazing pieces of engineering and with the advances in technology and artificial intelligence in the coming years, I’m excited to see what the future brings.



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