Siri Is Listening: Has iOS Privacy Been Blown Open?
Another week, another accusation of a major technology company spying on you. This week, it’s Apple’s turn, with the tech giant accused of recording everything – absolutely everything – you say to Siri, and passing it on to a third-party.
The allegations were made in a Reddit post by someone who goes by the name of FallenMyst. The pseudonymous poster purports to be a recent employee of Walk N’Talk Technologies, where her job is to listen to audio recordings of people using Siri, and rate how closely they match computer generated transcriptions.
The author claims to have heard everything from commands to texts that have been composed using Text-To-Speech technology. According to the poster, “if you’ve said it to your phone, it’s been recorded… and there’s a damn good chance a 3rd party is going to hear it”.
These latest allegations come not long after Samsung was pilloried for privacy-unfriendly behavior in their latest Smart TVs, where they listened to anything said in their vicinity, and then relayed them to a third-party.
So, should you carry on using Siri? Read on to find out.
‘… Between You And Me’
Siri is a virtual personal assistant
that has been an integral facet of iOS since the days of the iPhone 4S and the iPad 3. It allows the user to not only find information, and set reminders, but also to dictate messages and emails and much, much more
Quite unlike the other white-elephant technologies in iOS (I’m looking at you, Apple Pay), Siri is actually quite useful, and has inspired a number of ‘me too’ copycats, including Cortana and Google Now.
But what happens when you ask Siri a question?
Well, 9.9 times out of 10, nothing too untoward will happen. Just like you’ll expect, your question will be sent to Apple’s servers, where it will then be processed. The end result will be Siri does something.
But the other 0.1 times? Apple will do all that, plus some quality assurance, where your question is sent on to a third party. Apple’s iOS Terms and Conditions are pretty clear about this. It says:
“By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and dictation functionality in other Apple products and services.”
They’re pretty unambiguous about their intentions. But who are their third parties, and can we trust them?
There’s not a lot of information about Walk N’Talk Technologies online. No Twitter page. No corporate webpage. There’s a reference to a Walk N’Talk on Companies House (the government database of companies registered in the United Kingdom) but it’s unlikely it’s the one mentioned by FallenMyst.
Walk N’Talk Technologies is closely related to Crowdflower.com, and could quite possibly be a trading name of it. CrowdFlower is, of course, a data mining company that leverages ‘people power’ to make sense of data that is hard to process through computational methods. Some of the services offered by the company include sentiment analysis, data categorization, and content moderation.
It operates similarly to Amazon Mechanical Turk . Here, people are recruited to perform repetitive, manual tasks (such as categorizing audio recordings) for only a few cents at a time. Like Mechanical Turk, anyone can join.
It’s worth noting that CrowdFlower also offer quality assurance services for Cortana and S Voice.
Recordings are, from what I can tell, anonymized. They’re not attached to a specific user ID or phone number, and do not contain any personal information. Mostly, they’re just people telling Siri to ‘Text Dakota “I’m Bored”‘, or asking it to “show me some boobies”, as we saw when Vice’s Motherboard joined Crowdflower.
Keep Calm And Carry On Using Siri.
There are many reasons to be suspicious of the cloud-driven services we use, and how they impact upon our privacy. But this isn’t one of them.
In 2007, Google launched Google Voice Local Search, or Google 411 .
The service was, at the time, completely separate from the search giant’s pedigree. It allowed anyone to dial in to a toll free phone number, and search for a business using voice recognition. Google would then connect you to that number, effectively giving you a free phone call.
It came with a caveat, however. Google would record your call and your search query, and would use it to build one of one of the largest databases of human voices available at the time. The end result was a net positive. Google was able to bring decent, functional voice recognition to its search and mobile offerings. Without it, Google Now and Google Glass wouldn’t nearly be quite as good as they are.
The retention of customer’s voice searches didn’t stop in 2010, when Google 411 shut down. Any voice search you make to Google is recorded and processed. You can access this through your customer dashboard, found here.
Similarly, Siri works as well as it does because it has collected a massive sample of people’s voices, and because it runs rigorous quality assurance testing to ensure that the product works.
This, I feel, should be obvious to anyone who uses Siri.
There are clear, obvious examples of where Apple has breached user privacy. There are plenty of cases where they acted outside of the best interests of their customers. But this? This isn’t it.
Photo Credits: Siri (Toshiyuki IMAI), Siri iOS 5.1 (Toshiyuki IMAI)