Apple has responded to concerns over its practice of listening to Siri recordings by making the feature opt-in only. It follows a report in U.K.-based news outlet The Guardian revealing that Siri recordings were being listened to by external contractors.
Worse, it emerged that the voice assistant was easily activated by accident, and had picked up private conversations such as people talking to their doctor, drug deals and sexual encounters.
Concerns were elevated even further when the scale of this operation was revealed: One contractor claimed that those employed by Apple had been listening to up to 1,000 recordings a day. It came after others, including Facebook, were called out for not being clear about the practice of using human contractors to listen to user voice recordings.
Yesterday, Apple said it would stop recording Siri interactions and the program would become opt-in only. The grading program will also be brought in house from this fall.
Following the fallout, The Guardian reported, Apple has now ended the contracts of those employed to listen to Siri recordings. The staff had already been on paid leave since August 2, when Apple paused the practice following concerns over user privacy.
Apple said in a blog post that it will no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions. “We will continue to use computer-generated transcripts to help Siri improve,” it said.
“When customers opt in, only Apple employees will be allowed to listen to audio samples of the Siri interactions,” Apple said. It promised that the firm “will work to delete any recording which is determined to be an inadvertent trigger of Siri.”
Apple stops Siri recordings: An important move
Apple has been positioning itself as the company of choice for users concerned about their privacy. Its upcoming iOS 13 includes a number of privacy features, such as stopping apps including Facebook and WhatsApp from collecting data when not in use.
The Siri news was a PR disaster for the firm, but one that it has handled well. As Forbes contributor Zak Doffman commented this week when Apple released an emergency fix for iOS following the reintroduction of a security issue, everyone makes mistakes.
But a firm’s response matters. Opting into data collection should be the default, and it is best practice under the EU general update to data protection regulation (GDPR).
Ethical hacker John Opdenakker says Apple’s move was “necessary.”
“It wasn’t previously clear to users that Siri recordings were recorded, uploaded to Apple’s servers and listened to by Apple contractors.”
Independent security researcher Sean Wright agrees, but he expresses concerns more generally about the collection of audio. “I guess there will always be some element of risk using these voice-based services since the microphone will often be in an always listening mode and could potentially capture any conversations that you have.”
Jake Moore, cybersecurity expert at ESET, points out that the progression of voice assistant technologies require analysis of people’s conversations. “But at least they are requesting such permission,” he concedes.
So, should you opt into Siri recordings? Probably not, if you value your privacy. “Even though the recordings will only be listened by Apple’s own employees, I wouldn’t opt in as I value my privacy,” says Opdenakker.
Moore also warns users to think before opting into such practices. He points out that when you opt in to have your conversations studied, you probably haven’t told everyone you interact with that Apple is listening–which may inadvertently cause privacy issues for others.
As people accept more devices such as the Amazon Alexa and Google Home into their homes, they are starting to think more about privacy. As well as Apple, other firms are already starting to pause the practice of listening in to recordings following the very public backlash. So perhaps Apple just made a very smart move to lead the way and stand out against its voice assistant rivals.