What If Your Smartphone Could Detect Your Behavior – Cool or Freaky?

As technology has advanced and smartphones have become ubiquitous, we’ve seen the rise of some very interesting applications. Many of these apps make our lives easier, help us make decisions, and ev...
What If Your Smartphone Could Detect Your Behavior – Cool or Freaky?
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  • As technology has advanced and smartphones have become ubiquitous, we’ve seen the rise of some very interesting applications. Many of these apps make our lives easier, help us make decisions, and even offer up some fun and games. At SXSW this year, we saw an especially big emergence of “social discovery” apps that essentially allow users to find friends, colleagues, and even new people that are nearby based on location and other criteria such as age, interests, gender, etc.

    Although these types of apps have raised some mobile privacy concerns, more apps and platforms are already being developed that go beyond social discovery capabilities. And the truth is, they are quite fascinating developments.

    Behavio is one such startup that began as an open source project at the MIT Media Lab Funf and developed into an open source project that turns phones into smart sensors of the real world behavior of consumers. It was recently among the winners of a News Challenge hosted by the Knight Foundation. The winners received $1.37 million in grants for their innovative endeavors in the media industry.

    In terms of journalism, Behavio can take cell phone data and make deductions of an event’s surroundings, which, of course, would greatly add to a story. It also can provide more meaning to a photograph since it can offer more information than simply the date and location. Furthermore, Behavio opens the door for many others to contribute to a story.

    As intriguing as these capabilities are, the Behavio platform is actually designed to go further than the media landscape as well. According to Nadav Aharony, the company’s co-founder, the sensors that the Behavio platform is able to create can actually improve numerous areas of consumers’ lives.

    Nadav Aharony, Co-founder of Behavio and Product Manager on Google's Android team “We built the original software to actually do a study in a new methodology that we’re calling the social MRI,” he said.

    “Constructed from data from phones,” he continued, “ we can actually look at how communities live their lives, how an organic community lives, and how friendships are formed and how people make decisions in life.”

    Aharony told us that, just as the medical world can make a diagnosis through an imaging machine, the Behavio platform wants to do the same with the community. Since phones can already know users’ locations, can sense their movement and temperature, and many other signals, Behavio hopes to use these signs to make inferences about user behavior.

    “Starting to combine all these signals is starting to give us the ability to have a more interesting understanding of people, make our apps more interesting, and do more functionality that was much harder in the past,” said Aharony.

    Behavio Sensor Illustration

    For example, he pointed out that when users plug their phones in to charge and then set an alarm, it could be assumed that they are going to bed. Another example is Bluetooth technology since it can be used to sense other devices around it.

    “If the phone is running a similar software, you can actually detect that two people are co-located,” Aharony explained. “Suddenly, you can construct the face-to-face network of people, which is much more meaningful than maybe the online social network of friends and strangers that I might have approved on Facebook. – this is the people that I’m actually spending physical time with, which makes it much more relevant.”

    This is the type of assumption that he believes developers will be able to build applications on to simplify the lives of users.

    “We’re trying to make it easier for others to innovate,” he said.

    Still, as cool as the Behavio platform is, it is a little intimidating just thinking about how well a device can know you. Aharony told us that Behavio believes in giving the end user control. Users must give their consent before participating, and the framework has privacy protections built within it.

    He also assured us that Behavio does not save any human readable text and does not log names or phone numbers. What’s more, it “will never know what number was dialed or what was the name of the person.”

    “We think that understanding behavior is gonna become something very natural that will become a part of our devices – the same way that location is something that is very natural and many apps are leveraging this to make much more intelligent services,” Aharony said.

    “I think, in the future,” he continued, “that we’ll have sort of interesting black boxes that detect different types of behaviors from detecting the flu to detecting happiness to detecting friendship. “

    “The point is… we are trying to break this framework to allow many other people to donate and develop these – maybe eventually there will be marketplaces out there just like there is an app store… there may be an algorithm store that people or developers could make together to build smarter apps much faster.”

    “It’s really just the beginning,” Aharony added.

    He went on to say that there would likely be apps and services utilizing Behavio’s platform in the near future.

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