Hey Fourteen: When Numbers Get Siri-ous
Periodically, Google Analytics sends me a report with various statistics related to traffic on the TidBITS Web site. Seldom does it reveal anything interesting, but the last one I got showed that we had been receiving hits for some seemingly odd searches about Siri, all revolving around what happens when you say the number 14 to Siri. Google was sending people to our site because of Scholle McFarland’s article, “14 Siri Tricks You Can Use Right Now” (7 March 2019), but that article wasn’t going to answer their questions.
Curious as to why anyone would be reciting numbers at Siri, I invoked Siri on my iPhone and said, “14.” You can imagine my surprise when I was presented with an emergency call screen and a 3-second countdown. I tapped Cancel quickly, not knowing what would actually happen. (I subsequently confirmed that Siri would have called 911 here in the United States and presumably whatever your primary emergency number is wherever you live.)
A little research showed that Siri recognizes 14, along with at least 15, 17, and 18, as emergency numbers in some countries, but it doesn’t require you to be in those countries. Needless to say, I had to try them all. 14 usually called emergency services immediately, and 15 did once, but most of the time, 15, 17, and 18 showed a less stressful interface that didn’t call automatically.
What about other one- and two-digit numbers? I tried them all—well, into the twenties, anyway, with some higher spot checks. Siri’s responses varied a little. With numbers under 14, Siri mostly played dumb, although several times it interpreted my number as a desire to create a calendar event. (Numbers skipped below used the same set of responses.)
Siri was the most unsure about 16, never interpreting it as an emergency number. Just hope you don’t need to report a fire in Pakistan! But it is nice to learn, in case you weren’t clear on the concept, that 16 is an even, non-prime integer.
Similarly, 19 was never recognized as an emergency number even though Wikipedia claims it calls ambulances in Djibouti and police in Morocco. Interestingly, once I got over 20, the response about not being able to call an MMI or USSD number became consistent.
What are those? It turns out that USSD stands for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data and is a communications protocol used by GSM-based cell phones to talk to the carrier’s computers. It’s commonly used to check the available balance on prepaid GSM phones. MMI generically stands for Man-Machine Interface, and MMI numbers appear to be the codes you would enter to, for instance, forward your calls to another phone number. They’re hardcoded into every device.
As to why Google searches asking about Siri and the number 14 have suddenly started hitting our site, I couldn’t say—the emergency calling feature isn’t new. But it was a fun excuse to learn more about Siri, emergency numbers around the world, and geeky telecommunications protocols.
I am curious how you confirmed that Siri would have called 911 in the U.S. I certainly wasn’t going to allow the call to complete just to find out. but being in Canada it is worth noting that I experienced the exact same results as you did Adam. Very interesting though so thanks for posting this.
I decided it was better that to let one emergency call (in a low-density, low-crime area, in the mid-morning) connect briefly than to leave lots of other people wondering and potentially making multiple calls. So I waited until the 3-second countdown completed, saw it dial 911, and then hung up instantly. I have to assume there are a fair number of spurious emergency calls with Apple’s Emergency SOS feature now, so I only felt a little bad about inserting a 1-ring connection into the system to test.
Heh, nice Steely Dan (I presume) callback in the headline. And interesting article.
I’m surprised Siri would call without the word “call” or “dial.” I certainly would never expect shouting “911” into my phone to do anything unless I said “call” or “dial” or the like. I’d’ve expected, and even in a panic would presume, I’d need to tell it what to do, not just should numbers at it. (Maybe I’m too used to it misunderstanding me, so I’d never take a shortcut like that, heh.)
I wonder if people do this or if Apple is just overly cautious. I’m guessing someone has done it (for real)?
Thanks Adam. I was too chicken to allow it to go that far. Mostly because I had an event occur on the edge of my property, dialed the supposedly non-emergency local county police and promptly got hooked into 911. They had no interest in my effort to end the call and kept insisting I stay on the line. I was actually put on hold for close to 10 minutes and as the time ticked away I eventually hung up - which, admittedly I should not have done. It was about an hour later when I had a knock on my door from an RCMP member who was not at all thrilled to learn I was the person who hung up the phone. They had just spent the previous hour trying to track down whomever had made and ended the 911 call so I was not about to take any gambles with Siri.
Points for catching the Steely Dan reference—how about the Paul Simon reference as well?
I was surprised by this as well, but yes, I suspect Apple is just being cautious—the result (and press!) would be terrible if someone had tried to call emergency services and been stymied by a voice command requirement.
I got the Steely Dan reference immediately but I had to look up the Paul Simon reference. That was a deep cut! Not one of his better-known albums. I bought it a few years ago but have probably not listened to it more than twice.
I can’t pretend to be some sort of music expert (@geoffduncan is giggling here, since he knows just how shallow my knowledge is), but that Hearts and Bones album happened to be one of the small number of LPs that I owned (and still have). Tonya and I graduated from high school in 1985, and neither of us had much money growing up, so our music collections during high school and college were both small and spread between cassette tapes, LPs, and CDs. The Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms was our first CD.
I’m rather hesitant to quote the reference to “fourteen” in Donovan’s swinging '60s super mega hit “Mellow Yellow,” which was released when I was about fourteen and I thought it was one of the best songs ever. But when I was around 20 I realized how very creepy and horrible the reference probably is.
Only seeing this because Adam tagged me regarding his musical knowledge. Which can’t be that bad if he starts off with a Paul Simon album I maybe heard of once before in my life.
FWIW: The “what happens when you ask about Siri about 14” is one of those pranks that came out of “communities” like 8chan/8kun: just say in your best online sociopath voice lets do a meme that makes 3rd wurld iOS luzers ddos 911 lol and you know exactly how it started.
This particular one dates from early 2017 and started out as “ask Siri about 108” (which is the emergency code in India) but it took that “community” about ten minutes to figure out what other numbers call emergency services and do a bunch of variations targeting different regions. The two digit emergency codes are most common in nations in the Sahel and Mahgreb. However, as Adam noted, the functionality works regardless of a device’s locale.
Like a rickroll, this is one that people seem to forget about and regurgitate every so often. Please do not perpetuate this problem put additional load on emergency services by “testing” it. As Gordon noted above, in many locales when you call emergency services they are obligated to roll on hangups. In many of those locales, spurious calls to emergency services can result in fines or misdemeanor charges—which just feeds those particular trolls even more.
Illustrates how careful pre-release user testing needs to be to uncover things the designers would never expect users to do. Sometimes, however, things that are obviously “risky” stay in the user interface for no apparent reason.
For example, every time I take a screenshot of my iPhone but hold the buttons down a bit too long, I’m given a chance to call (actually a chance to CANCEL a call) to 911, which will happen if I don’t decide quickly enough. The same is true, of course, if I hold both buttons down in order to shut down or reboot my phone.
On my Mac, as I type, occasionally the Siri interface windolet will emerge from upper right of my screen to tell me she cannot call 911 for me in this way (WHAT way???), or, less ominously, ask me whom I’d like to FaceTime with. Once I precipitated the above response by answering “no one,” which I guess was close enough to make her think I was like Tom Hanks in “Road to Perdition” doing his best as his life forces slipped away (yes, I’m watching LOTS of old good movies during the pandemic).Another time I provoked Siri into thinking that sitting in my computer barely clothed and unwashed at 5 am was a good time tor a video chat and asked the question, I responded “God.” She didn’t help my quest for revelation.
Of course, Siri isn’t the ONLY inanimate “helper” whose offers are sometimes unexpected or inappropriate. Both my phone and my bicycle computer have fall detection built in. I’ve returned from porta-potties to my bike (intentionally laid down at street side) more than a few times to find messages on my screen telling me that I’ve fallen and offering to have the first responders come and help!
On the other hand, Siri is also helpful when summoned from my newly purchased HomePod. In the past week, I’ve pulled dozens of albums from the 60s and 70s to listen to again when I have no where to go—which of course is pretty much ALL the time. Even better, comparing different performances of the same source material; e.g., Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead’s acoustic “Me and My Uncle” with, (of all people) John Denver’s rendition (which is backed by electric instruments)
Wow. And here I was expecting to hear that you knew the guy who played some obscure instrument on that album from your studio days as a teenager.
I do wonder to what extent the Emergency SOS and similar features (I assume Android does something like this too) have increased the number of spurious emergency calls, and how the emergency services people are dealing with that. @rmogull might know more too, but he may have been called up as an EMT to help with the COVID-19 crisis now.
Months ago, I was sitting in a restaurant when I heard some strange tone(s). I believed it wasn’t my phone, but I pulled it out anyway. To my surprise, it had called 911. I assume my position had pressed the right combination of buttons for long enough. After assuring 911 that it was a mistake, I disabled (I hope!) the emergency calling feature.
Since I believed it wasn’t my phone, I might have done nothing. Could the police have done some triangulation to determine my phone’s location and then visited the restaurant?
/me pulls up the credits from Wikipedia…I think the only person I met briefly “back in the day” was Steve Ferrone. A few more I’ve met in my studio days as an adult.
If he has, then best wishes for his safety and many 's for putting other’s health and well being above his own. We would all be in dire straits without the heroic efforts of front line medical workers such as @rmogull.
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum