Siri is back to letting humans listen to you

You may recall back in August when word leaked out that Apple was allowing their employees (and sometimes contractors) to “sample” audio recorded by their Siri home assistant devices. This was presumably done to help improve advancements in AI. People were understandably upset at the potential implications and raised a fuss. Apple responded by suspending the practice and apologizing.

At the time, Apple CEO Time Cook went on record saying that “privacy is a fundamental human right.” Everyone seemed at least somewhat mollified by the outcome. Well, that didn’t last very long. The latest update to their operating system is back to allowing human sampling of the audio Siri collects, though you do have some options. (Associated Press)

Apple is resuming the use of humans to review Siri commands and dictation with the latest iPhone software update.

In August, Apple suspended the practice and apologized for the way it used people, rather than just machines, to review the audio…

Now, Apple is giving consumers notice when installing the update, iOS 13.2. Individuals can choose “Not Now” to decline audio storage and review. Users who enable this can turn it off later in the settings. Apple also specifies that Siri data is not associated with a user’s Apple ID.

I suppose this isn’t as bad as the last episode, assuming you believe everything they’re saying. (A significant assumption to be sure.) The first question here is how useful this system will be to Apple if they’re letting everyone opt out? How many people do you suppose are going to opt in? Having a choice between letting some rando Apple employee listening in on whatever you happened to be discussing in your living room (or your bedroom!) or not doing it seems fairly easy, even if you feel like you have nothing to hide.

Removing contractors from this work may be a slight improvement, but not much. Your own employees can just as easily “go rogue” with the recordings as a contractor.

Most of the “sampling” will still be done with machines, but I’m not sure how much better that will make everyone feel. If that’s taking place it means that the data (the transcript of your recorded activities) is still being shipped back to HQ. And if so, somebody can access it if they really want to. How much do you trust not just the CEO but the middle managers and drones out on the floor handling this digital treasure trove?

The issue here is that we’re dealing with a tech giant and not the federal government. (How often do you hear me say that?) If this was the government there would be rules in place, transparency requirements and the ability to request records and details through the Freedom of Information Act. Apple is privately owned. Unless someone can make a credible claim that they’re breaking the law, they don’t have to tell you anything about what they’re doing with your data. And they can lie about if if they wish and probably never be held accountable unless an employee blows the whistle on them. Even then we still won’t get to see their code and darned few of us could understand it if we did.

As far as I’m concerned, my default assumption is that all of our smart devices are gathering data on us and that trend will only expand as the Internet of Things continues to grow and more devices are made “smart.” It’s our choice whether we adopt this technology or not. And if we do, we’re taking chances that nobody had to worry about in the 20th century.