A common theme in crime and safety urban legends involves little-known tricks or codes enabling victims to surreptitiously contact help, such as the (false) rumor that entering one’s PIN in reverse at an ATM will automatically summon police. These modern bits of folklore speak to our fears of situations wherein we are awake, aware, and have the ability to summon help but cannot do so because of the circumstances under which assistance is required.
One rumor of this genre asserts that in threatening situations, iPhone users can ask the virtual assistant known as Siri to “charge my phone to 100 percent” as a furtive way of dialing 911 or summoning emergency services, a seemingly benign request that would seem innocent to whoever was threatening the holder of the iPhone. (Although, as with many “secret code” safety urban legends, the iPhone ploy would work only if the situation’s aggressor remained unaware of the function.)
Before investigating the claim further, we picked up an iPhone to determine whether requesting Siri charge the phone to 100 percent indeed initiated dialing emergency services or 911. We made five attempts, to which Siri responded by doing nothing more than issuing an apology for being unable to comply:
Twitter users were similarly unsuccessful in activating Siri’s secret 911 call feature:
— Susan Millard (@Booya2009) July 15, 2016
Normally at this point we’d file such a claim along with all the other “coded call” rumors as mere wishful thinking; a security blanket-like belief to provide a plausible but unfounded feeling of safety. But a July 2015 Verge article suggested that the rumor evolved from what was once supposedly a little-known — and quickly-amended — bug associated with Siri:
Siri has a lot of useful functions, but is thwarting kidnap one of them? Well, no, probably not, but if you ask Siri to “charge my phone 100 percent” then it automatically starts calling the emergency services, giving you a 5-second window to cancel the call. We’re not sure exactly why this happens — it could just be a bug, of course — but one consequence is that it could be used in some sort of home invasion scenario, allowing someone to secretly call the police without attracting attention. While this sounds like a far-fetched scenario, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Earlier this year, for example, a woman used Pizza Hut’s app to alert the police that she and her children were being held hostage by a boyfriend with a knife. Asking a kidnapper if you can charge your phone with some weird passphrase is pretty innocuous by comparison. However, there’s no official mention from Apple of this “function,” and the only evidence of its use online is a scattering of tweets going back to early July of teens trying to prank one another with it. At least that’s a believable use case.
As the Verge noted, the earliest versions of this claim seemed to stem from social media users pranking one another into trying it:
Tell Siri to charge your phone to 100% It’s so fucking dope — The Persian Mamba (@itssyanni) July 16, 2015
Tell Siri “charge my phone to 100%” it works
— omar (@ohhmmar) July 16, 2015
— holiday jo?➕✖️ (@jogarrix) July 16, 2015
The Verge noted that there was no mention of the purported coded help feature anywhere online that readers reported the claim wasn’t as clear cut as it appeared. Command combinations of “phone” and a number led to Siri’s attempting to dial different numbers:
Readers have pointed out that Siri might just be reacting to the instruction “phone” followed by any number. The command “Siri, charge my phone 911 percent” also dials the emergency services, while using other percentages (e.g. “Siri, charge my phone 560 percent”) simply result in Siri trying to call that number.
The glitch was first widely reported by the Verge on 16 July 2015, and by the following the bug appeared to be resolved:
While it was initially unclear if the odd feature was a software glitch or little-known safety feature, it seems that the function is no longer available … Depending on which particular version of iOS your device currently has installed, Siri will now reply to the command with “I can’t do that for you. My apologies,” or “Surprisingly, that is not within my capabilities.”
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did it respond when asked initially about the unusual feature.
So, for a brief period in July 2015, social media users reported that the command “Siri, charge my phone to 100 percent” summoned police. Contemporaneous reports suggested that even when the bug occurred (unreliably), similar voice commands involving the word “phone” and numbers elicited responses that did not dial emergency services. And within one day of the rumor’s making the news, Apple ostensibly “fixed” the phone issue (without comment).
As of this writing, some of the original news reports about the issue from July 2015 have not been updated, fostering the notion that the reported Siri behavior might still be true. But more reliable methods for contacting 911 without alerting a dangerous individual nearby are available to the public.
Alba, Alejandro. “Apple’s Siri Will Call 911 If You Say ‘Charge My Phone to 100%.'”
[New York] Daily News. 16 July 2015.
Giuliano, Karissa. “Apple Appears to Have Fixed That Unusual Siri Glitch.”
NBC News. 17 July 2015.
Vincent, James. “Asking Siri to Charge Your Phone Dials the Police and We Don’t Know Why.”
The Verge. 16 July 2015.
Federal Communications Commission. “What You Need to Know About Text-To-911.”
Accessed 26 December 2016.