Posted by: David Harley | February 23, 2014

Not Angelas but maybe not Angels*

As I mentioned here recently, the Talking Angela myth Graham Cluley first reported about a year ago still has legs (not to mention its mouth, which seems to be the main point of contention). As well as Paul Ducklin’s look at the chain message, Graham has had occasion to return to the topic several times in the past week or two.

  • Talking Angela app scare spreads between English and French Facebook users:  I’m not sure whether it’s serendipitous or maybe a subtle intentional pun that Graham describes the app as a chat-bot. The app centres on conversations with an Eliza-like program that extracts elements from sentences typed in by a human and uses them to generate human-like responses, but ‘Angela’ is represented as a cat, not a human. And the French for cat is ‘chat’. 🙂
  •  Two days later he reported on a story that a 7-year-old boy had disappeared after his mother installed Talking Angela onto her iPhone. The story apparently originates on Huzlers, a site that announces its intentions (in a footnote at the bottom of its main page) as being: “… a combination of real shocking news and satire news to keep its visitors in a state of disbelief.” While that footnote seems to suggest that some of its ‘shocking news’ stories are real, there’s a Huzlers Facebook page that proclaims ‘…because you like being lied to”, and other sources assume that its content is purely satire/fiction. Be that as it may, I’ve found no indication anywhere that there’s any truth in this particular story, and I don’t advocate passing on any Huzlers story without very careful verification. At the very least, it seems that the site is inspiring a state of belief rather than unbelief in social media users.
  • Most bizarrely, perhaps, he reported on a phone call he received from a lady in the North of England wanting to know if he’d written the app, since his name cropped up when she looked up ‘Talking Angela’ on Google. He didn’t, and if you’re reading this, madam, neither did I. 🙂 The worrying aspect of this story is that when people are determined to believe a hoax or semi-hoax, they can be quite aggressive in its defence, resorting to ad hominem attacks on the morals and intellectual capacity of someone advocating a reasoned, analytical consideration of an issue rather than an emotion-clouded knee-jerk reaction. Happily, that doesn’t seem to have been the case in this instance.

Stuart Dredge also looked at the Talking Angela issue for the Guardian: he talked to the real developers, Outfit7, and it turns out that the conversations are collected, though the company states that “We take out anything that could be potentially identifiable. We’re over-cautious in how we filter information, to make sure nothing identifiable can leave the app.” Dredge’s article is by no means a PR exercise in favour of the company: he does raise some concerns about the app, though they seem very minor compared to the hysterical tone of some of the warnings Graham quotes. In another article – What the Talking Angela app is really saying to your kids – he examines some of the app behaviour that seems to have inspired some of the hysteria and concludes:

A couple of commenters on my previous article about the Talking Angela hoax suggested concerns about the app normalising the kind of conversations that you wouldn’t want children having with strangers in the real world. That’s a legitimate criticism, and one that Outfit7 should act on by making it harder for kids to turn off the Child Mode.

He raises some other issues that would probably discourage me from allowing my own young children from using the app, if I still had any. However, that’s a long way from the sort of exploitation and grooming scares that are currently circulating.

Outfit7 has an FAQ that tries to address some of the concerns here.

*There is a story that when Pope Gregory (c. 540-604 A.D.) first saw fair-haired children in the slave market he was told that they were Angles (one of the Germanic peoples who settled in England following the fall of the Roman Empire – hence Anglo-Saxons), he punned ‘Non Angli sed Angeli’ (not Angles but Angels). I don’t see why he and Graham should have all the pun fun.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

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