Does Siri Belong In Business? [Feature]


Does Siri belong in the workplace? If so, is it worth potential security and privacy issues?

The news that IBM bans Siri for every employee that has an iPhone 4S and participates the company’s BYOD program unleashed a lot of discussion about whether the company was being paranoid or prudent. One of the bigger questions to come out of all that discussion was a reframing of the issue itself – does Siri have a place in the business world to begin with?

Setting aside the security and privacy issues that led IBM to ban Siri, are there compelling use cases for Siri in the workplace? If there are, do they outweigh the privacy and security concerns? Could Apple do more to make Siri business-friendly?

In answering that question, it’s important to recognize that Siri’s technology extends beyond Siri itself. On both the iPhone 4S and the new iPad, Siri’s voice recognition engine is integrated into the iOS keyboard and allows users to dictate words and sentences into any app that accepts text input. That’s a much broader application of the technology than the virtual assistant component that exists only on the iPhone 4S.

That dictation ability has countless potential uses since it can be used in any app and for almost any purpose. Professionals in virtually every field can easily find ways to use that dictation capability, particularly iPhone 4S users needing to enter more than a few words of text. Some of the most common uses from a business perspective include dictating an email, adding substantial content to a Word document in Pages or Quickoffice, entering client information into a CRM or similar tool, making notes about a passage in an ebook or PDF, and posting to social networks.

Beyond the dictation feature, however, is Siri a business tool? I’d have to say that it isn’t quite there yet for two reasons. First, it’s very clear that Siri is still a work in progress. There have been countless stories over the past eight months about how Siri doesn’t live up to its potential. Reliability alone is a big reason to say Siri isn’t ready to be seen as a business tool. However, that’s somewhat of a moot point since it’s easy for an iPhone user to perform any Siri-oriented task if Siri can’t manage them properly.

That leads to the bigger issue, which is that Siri really can’t do very much at this point. Yes, it can give you the weather, tell you your schedule and rearrange meetings, it can read and send texts, and it can find business or individuals and give you directions. It can also make stabs at delivering additional information thanks to Wolfram Alpha. Still, from a business point of view, that’s a pretty limited bag of tricks. Of course, I have no doubt that Siri will eventually include a range of additional features and I’m hopeful that Apple will announce Siri-related APIs for developers a little over a week from now at WWDC.

For the time being, however, that means Siri simply has limited business value as a feature and that will probably be the case for a while. That said, some speech related apps like iTranslate Voice and many of the Siri-related jailbreak tweaks show off the potential for Siri in all manner of situations including business use.

That brings us back to the big security question. Should businesses allow or encourage employees to use Siri? As I said last week, many businesses don’t have the need for secrecy that IBM does. Companies in regulated industries or that deal with confidential information should definitely avoid Siri in a majority of circumstances. Depending on the situation, that may require banning Siri or it may not.

Using healthcare as an example, it seems obvious that using iOS dictation or Siri to make notes about a patient’s medical condition or prescribed medications would violate HIPAA privacy regulations because that data is sent to Apple for translation into text. A doctor using Siri to send a text to a friend about where to meet for dinner, however, has no patient confidentiality issues. Banning Siri is an option in that case, but so is ensuring that the doctor in question understands how he or she can and can’t use Siri is also an option.

The issue of using mobile device management (MDM) to disable Siri is part of the broader discussion of mobile management. Do companies need to control and lock-down iOS functionality to achieve a secure environment? While the knee-jerk reaction for many IT pros is to say yes, the growing consensus among IT leaders is that securing the device isn’t really what’s important in many cases. What’s important is securing the data stored on or accessed from a device. User education can, and should, be a big part of any mobile strategy. For the iPhone 4S and the new iPad, that education needs to include the privacy and security realities around Siri and dictation. Whether education is enough is going to depend on the organization and the users and IT leaders involved.

One final thought on that matter is that Apple can help businesses create a more flexible approach to Siri. When Apple does open up Siri to developers or significantly increase its capabilities, the company could include a much more granular set of options for managing Siri and dictation. Right now IT departments have only two choices: enable/disable Siri and use or don’t use a profanity filter. That doesn’t give any real options in terms mobile management when it comes to securing Siri.

If Apple were to offer the ability to block Siri and dictation from certain apps and/or block certain features, it would allow IT departments to take a flexible approach that blocks sensitive data from leaking out while letting users have access to other capabilities. Another option that would be even more helpful is the ability to block Siri while in the office or during office hours, which would be an extension of the functionality in iOS reminders.