First Amazon, then Google, and now Apple have all confirmed that their devices are not only listening to you, but complete strangers may be reviewing the recordings. Thanks to Siri, Apple contractors routinely catch intimate snippets of users’ private lives like drug deals, doctor’s visits, and sexual escapades as part of their quality control duties, the Guardian reported Friday.
As part of its effort to improve the voice assistant, “[a] small portion of Siri requests are analysed to improve Siri and dictation,” Apple told the Guardian. That involves sending these recordings sans Apple IDs to its international team of contractors to rate these interactions based on Siri’s response, amid other factors. The company further explained that these graded recordings make up less than 1 percent of daily Siri activations and that most only last a few seconds.
That isn’t the case, according to an anonymous Apple contractor the Guardian spoke with. The contractor explained that because these quality control procedures don’t weed out cases where a user has unintentionally triggered Siri, contractors end up overhearing conversations users may not ever have wanted to be recorded in the first place. Not only that, details that could potentially identify a user purportedly accompany the recording so contractors can check whether a request was handled successfully.
“There have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data,” the whistleblower told the Guardian.
And it’s frighteningly easy to activate Siri by accident. Most anything that sounds remotely like “Hey Siri” is likely to do the trick, as UK’s Secretary of Defense Gavin Williamson found out last year when the assistant piped up as he spoke to Parliament about Syria. The sound of a zipper may even be enough to activate it, according to the contractor. They said that of Apple’s devices, the Apple Watch and HomePod smart speaker most frequently pick up accidental Siri triggers, and recordings can last as long as 30 seconds.
While Apple told the Guardian the information collected from Siri isn’t connected to other data Apple may have on a user, the contractor told a different story:
“There’s not much vetting of who works there, and the amount of data that we’re free to look through seems quite broad. It wouldn’t be difficult to identify the person that you’re listening to, especially with accidental triggers—addresses, names and so on.”
Staff were told to report these accidental activations as technical problems, the worker told the paper, but there wasn’t guidance on what to do if these recordings captured confidential information.
All this makes Siri’s cutesy responses to users questions seem far less innocent, particularly its answer when you ask if it’s always listening: “I only listen when you’re talking to me.”
Fellow tech giants Amazon and Google have faced similar privacy scandals recently over recordings from their devices. But while these companies also have employees who monitor each’s respective voice assistant, users can revoke permissions for some uses of these recordings. Apple provides no such option in its products.