Apple says its contractors will stop listening to users through Siri

iPhones on display during an Apple special event in Cupertino, California.
iPhones on display during an Apple special event in Cupertino, California.PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (WASHINGTON POST) - Apple announced on Friday (Aug 2) it would stop using contractors to listen in on users through Siri to grade the voice assistant's accuracy.

An Apple whistleblower had told the Guardian that the contractors responsible for "grading" the accuracy of the digital assistant regularly overheard conversations about doctors' appointments, drug deals and even couples having sex.

Their job was to determine what triggered Siri into action - whether the user had actually said, "Hey, Siri" or if it was something else, such as the sound of a zipper.

Apple said it would suspend the global analysis of those voice recordings while it reviewed the grading system.

Users will be able to opt out of reviews during a future software update.

"We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy," said Cat Franklin, an Apple spokeswoman, in an email to The Washington Post.

Many smart-speaker owners don't realise that Siri, Amazon's Alexa and, until recently Google's Assistant, keep recordings of everything they hear after their so-called "wake word" to help train their artificial intelligences. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

Google quietly changed its defaults last year, and Assistant no longer automatically records what it hears after the prompt "Hey, Google."

BUSINESS DEALS, SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS

Apple said it uses the data "to help Siri and dictation... understand you better and recognise what you say," Apple said. But this wasn't made clear to users in Apple's terms and conditions.

"There have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on," the Apple whistleblower told The Guardian.

"These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data."

In response, Apple said that the recordings accounted for only 1 per cent of Siri activations and lasted just a few seconds. They also were not linked to users Apple IDs.

Apple contractors in Ireland told the Guardian that they had been sent home for the weekend and were told it was because the global grading system "was not working."

Managers stayed on site, but said that no one knew how the system's suspension would affect their employment.

The Apple whistleblower said the Apple Watch and the HomePod, a smart speaker, were especially prone to accidental activation. A 2018 study from investment firm Loup Ventures found that HomePod's Siri was accurate in answering standardized questions 52 per cent of the time.