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Apple’s Siri violated ‘the privacy of millions,' says whistleblower

In 2019 news broke that Apple contractors were listening to users’ Siri recordings without their knowledge or consent, but the company 'has not been subject to any kind of investigation'

Adam Smith
Wednesday 20 May 2020 15:57
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address during the 2019 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center on June 03, 2019 in San Jose, California
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address during the 2019 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center on June 03, 2019 in San Jose, California

The whistleblower who exposed in 2019 that Apple contractors listened to users’ Siri recordings without their knowledge or consent has gone public to protest the lack of action taken against the technology giant.

In a letter, sent to all European data protection regulators, Thomas le Bonniec said that Apple had conducted a “massive violation of the privacy of millions of citizens.”

He wrote that although news of the case had already gone public, the technology giant “has not been subject to any kind of investigation to the best of my knowledge.”

Mr Le Bonniec, who was hired by one of Apple’s subcontractors in Ireland called Globe Technical Services, had to listen to recordings from users and correct transcription errors. Listening to hundreds of recortings from Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches, many of them were taken “outside of any activation of Siri” – meaning that users were not aware of the action.

As well as recording their owners, Apple’s devices also picked up speech involving relatives or children of the owners who divulged names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, and conversations without their knowledge that it was being recorded.

This covered personal information, including "cancer, referring to dead relatives, religion, sexuality, pornography, politics, school, relationships, or drugs,” Mr le Bonniec said.

The letter also stated that workers on another project, “Development data,” also had access to these recordings. This project entailed tagging words in the recordings to be linked to user data. This includes phone contacts, locations, or music.

“In other words, staff assigned to the project had access to personal user information, and used it to be able to link it to Siri commands. This means that users' playlists, contact details, notes, calendars, photos, maps, etc. were gathered in huge data sets, ready to be exploited by Apple for other projects,” the letter stated.

In August 2019, as a response to this news, the Cupertino company fired 300 workers with only one week’s notice and said it was reviewing its audio program. Mr Le Bonniec said that “nothing has been done to verify if Apple actually stopped the programme,” with sources reportedly telling him that Apple has not taken action.

Apple touts its privacy practises compared to competitors such as Google, but has often been criticised for using such principles as a marketing tool, especially on political grounds.

“I believe that Apple's statements merely aim to reassure their users and public authorities, and they do not care for their user's consent, unless being forced to obtain it by law” Mr le Bonniec wrote.

When asked for comment, Apple directed us to its August Newsroom post from 2019 and its Ask Siri Dictation & Privacy support page.

We have reached out to the company for a statement.

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