Section: News

Android phone users receive perplexing spam notifications

Students with Android phones connected to the “Kenyon Devices” wireless network may have noticed spam notifications appearing on their phones since last fall. Android phones use a Google-designed operating system.

A November 2016 update to Google Play services enabled “remote control” notifications for all Android devices; they are manufactured by companies including Samsung, LG and Google. Now, anyone with an Android phone connected to Kenyon Devices receives a push notification whenever anyone else with an Android phone connected to Kenyon Devices uses a Chromecast or Google Home, according to Helpline Manager Brandon Warga. This update was designed for a home wireless network with a small number of cell phones, Warga wrote in an email to the Collegian. It’s intention was to simplify the process of controlling smart home devices. At Kenyon, where hundreds of devices are connected to one wireless network, the update had unintended consequences.

These push notifications notify users that media apps like Spotify, Netflix, Pandora and YouTube are casting to devices such as a Google Home named Master Bedroom Home or Chromecasts, including one named Jorge’s Magic and another named Mr. Poopybutthole, based off of the character from Rick and Morty, an adult cartoon show. Google Homes are voice-activated smart home devices that can search for the answers to questions on the internet, play music or control the lights. Chromecasts connect to HDMI television ports, allowing users to display their smartphone screen on the television, or play music or videos from apps like Netflix or YouTube.

Notifications in the past month included “Spotify is casting to Master Bedroom House” and “Spotify is casting to Lions Den Stereo” on April 19 and “YouTube is casting to PGC Chromecast” on April 22.

Google does not allow users to protect their Chromecast or Google Home with a password, which allows anyone on the Kenyon Devices wireless network to connect to any Chromecast or Google Home on the same wireless network, regardless of proximity. Anyone with an Android device can also remotely play and pause music or video on any Chromecast or Google Home, adjust the volume through the Google Home app or end the cast of video or music all together.

Justin Martin ’19 received a Google Home as a surprise Christmas gift in 2016 and was further surprised when the device started turning on by itself at seemingly random intervals. Early this semester, his Google Home began playing an Arcade Fire song very loudly at 3 a.m., waking Martin up. Bleary, he assumed his roommate’s alarm was going off, until he realized the Google Home was playing music.

“I just start yelling, ‘Okay Google, stop! Okay Google, stop!’ but it’s going so loud that it can’t actually hear me, so I’m yelling at this inanimate object half-asleep,” Martin said.

Since then, Martin’s Google Home has startled him by turning itself on three or four times. He initially suspected his housemates were pranking him. Martin joked that he felt he was living in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey with a malevolent piece of technology ruling over him.

Martin said the songs have been random, ranging from rap to “weird Renaissance chanting,” and never play for very long.

“Nobody that projects stuff into my Google Home has my same musical taste,” Martin said. “If these were all random wandering Mountain Goats fans, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. I’d just be like, okay, God loves me, and is projecting the Mountain Goats into my speakers.”

The update has only affected students with Android devices. Students annoyed by notifications can go to their phone settings, select Google from the settings menu, select “Google Cast” and toggle “Show remote control notifications” to off, according to an article on howtogeek.com.

But for students like Martin, the random musical interludes — whether accidentally or intentionally caused by other students on the Kenyon Devices network — will continue for the foreseeable future.

“If you don’t want other people to cast to your Chromecast when you’re not using it, the simplest solution may be to unplug it when you are not using it,” Warga wrote. At this time, Helpline is unable to offer any other solutions because the issue stems from Google’s operating system design for Chromecasts and Google Homes, not a technical issue.

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