Siri accidentally overhears more than we realize

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Siri Alexa in voice report
Sometimes Siri is listening when we don’t mean it to.
Photo: Apple

It’s been widely reported that voice control systems like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri use people in their quality-improvement process, not just algorithms. But Siri and others might be accidentally overhearing to what we say more than we realize, and humans in the loop are getting an earful.

A new report warns that Apple contractors have heard “confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex.”

The report comes from the UK’s Guardian, who spoke to one of the Apple’s contractors who believes the company doesn’t do enough to inform Siri users that they could be overheard.

Nevertheless, Apple seems quite upfront about it. “A small portion of Siri requests are analysed to improve Siri and dictation,” the company told The Guardian. ”User requests are not associated with the user’s Apple ID. Siri responses are analysed in secure facilities and all reviewers are under the obligation to adhere to Apple’s strict confidentiality requirements.”

Less than 1% of Siri commands are analyzed by humans, and the recordings are short.

“Hey Siri” isn’t perfect

Apple uses on-device intelligence to recognize that you’ve used the activation phrase “Hey Siri.” Only after that phrase has been recognized are user commands sent to servers to handle the rest of the speech recognition task.

The Guardian’s source warns that iPhones and other devices will mistakenly think they’ve heard the activation phrase and then transmit audio to Apple servers without the user’s knowledge. That’s how the company accidentally receives recordings of private conversations.

The situation got worse for Apple Watch users with the addition of “Raise to Speak” in watchOS 5. This allows users to skip saying “Hey Siri” by just raising their wrist and talking to their wearable. The Guardian’s source claims this causes the Apple Watch to frequently activate Siri without the user meaning to.

Watch users have to opt into this feature. And it can be deactivated by going to Settings > General > Siri > Raise to Speak.

“Hey Siri” is an opt-in feature on the iPhone and iPad, too. Users can turn it back off by going to Settings > Siri & Search and toggling off Listen for “Hey Siri.”