Picture: 123RF/ Dzmitry Kliapitski
Picture: 123RF/ Dzmitry Kliapitski

San Francisco — Apple apologised for privacy mishaps surrounding its Siri voice assistant and said that it would no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions, among other changes.

The announcement follows criticism of the iPhone maker and other technology giants for employing humans to listen to recordings of user interactions with voice assistants in a bid to improve the product.

Apple had hundreds of contractors listening to Siri in a process called “grading”, but the company suspended the program a few weeks ago after some consumers raised concerns. It plans to reinstate the practice after making a few changes in software updates that will give users more control over their privacy.

“As a result of our review, we realise we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologise,” Apple said in a statement on Wednesday.

Bloomberg News earlier in 2019 reported that Amazon.com and Apple had teams analysing recordings. The Guardian reported in July that some of the people reviewing the Siri requests heard private personal details and possibly criminal activity.

Amazon, which still has teams auditing voice commands for its Alexa digital assistant, said earlier in August that it was letting users opt out of human review. Google has agreed to stop transcribing voice recordings in the EU amid a German investigation.

Class-action lawsuit

The use of human reviewers by the tech giants has spurred examinations by lawmakers and regulators in the US and Europe. Privacy advocates have voiced concern that the companies’ practices could violate users’ rights, particularly in cases where devices begin recording unintentionally or without the user’s knowledge. Apple faces a class-action lawsuit over privacy violations related to human reviewers listening to recordings.

“We know that customers have been concerned by recent reports of people listening to audio Siri recordings as part of our Siri quality evaluation process,” Apple said. “We heard their concerns, immediately suspended human grading of Siri requests and began a thorough review of our practices and policies.”

At the CES conference in Las Vegas earlier in 2019, Apple posted billboards that proclaimed, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”

At Apple, fewer than 0.2% of Siri commands were analysed, the company said. The recordings that were reviewed also do not  contain personally identifiable information and are stored for six months tied to a random identifier, not linked to a user’s Apple ID or phone number.

As part of the changes Apple is implementing, users will be able to opt in to allow the company to listen to a select bunch of anonymous audio samples in order to improve Siri, and then be able to opt out of the program later if they wish. While it will no longer store audio recordings, computer-generated transcriptions will be held anonymously for up to six months, Apple said.

In another change, Apple said only its own employees would listen to audio samples, rather than outside contractors. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that at least 300 contractors in Europe lost their jobs as a result of Apple suspending its grading program. Apple also said it is making changes to the review process to reduce the data about customers that reviewers can see.

Following concerns from users that Apple could be retaining recordings from Siri that were accidentally picked up due to a mistaken button press or the system thinking the user had said “Hey Siri”, Apple said on Wednesday it would work to delete inadvertent recordings.

Apple has often sought to distinguish itself from other tech companies as having tighter privacy controls. But this is not  the first time it has  had to apologise for lapses. Earlier in 2019  Apple issued a mea culpa for a bug in its FaceTime video chat service that allowed users to listen in on people before they had even accepted or rejected a call.

Bloomberg