Hey Siri, What Is Privacy?: Apple whistleblower goes public over lack of regulatory action on voice recordings

June 24, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Thomas Le Bonniec, a 25-year-old former Apple contractor has identified himself as the source of anonymous leaks about Apple’s dubious voice recording practices. He announced his decision by writing an open letter to EU regulators, calling on them to take action.

What does this mean?

In 2019, Le Bonniec leaked details about the grading system used by Apple to assure the efficiency of its Siri voice assistant. He disclosed that contractors listen to users’ recordings and grade the accuracy and appropriateness of Siri’s responses. Siri is activated with the phrase “Hey Siri”, but Le Bonniec revealed that it is frequently activated accidentally by similar sounding words or even sounds like that of a zip. Users are therefore often recorded and listened to without their knowledge or consent. Le Bonniec said that contractors “regularly hear confidential details” such as business deals, medical information and sexual encounters. (For more on this, check out our recent article here). Apple apologised and assured that “Siri responses are analysed in secure facilities and all reviewers are under the obligation to adhere to Apple’s strict confidentiality requirements”.

Le Bonniec has since written an open letter to all European data protection regulators condemning their lack of action and calling on them to investigate, as it was not clear whether Apple had changed its practices. The letter said that despite Apple’s “massive violation of the privacy of millions of citizens”, it had “not been subject to any kind of investigation”.

What's the big picture effect?

Apple seems to have prioritised product enhancement over user privacy; the grading system aims to make Siri better for users, but it also poses significant threats to fundamental rights.

The market for voice assisted products is highly competitive. Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home both threaten to outpace Siri’s development. Apple ordinarily wields a strong reputation for user privacy as a marketing tool over these competitors, indeed in January its billboard at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas proclaimed that “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone”. The grading system is “clearly at odds with the company’s privacy-driven policies”, says Le Bonniec. Therefore, Apple’s reputation and competitive advantage are at risk if it fails to adequately address this issue.

The most appropriate immediate solution appears to be increased disclosure of the grading system. In the long-term, Apple must enhance Siri’s accuracy so as to reduce the incidence of accidental activations. Ironically, it seems that the most effective way to do this is to do exactly what is being complained of, so it will be interesting to see what Apple does next.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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