Ireland’s data protection boss questions Apple over Siri privacy

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How private are your conversations with Siri?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission is questioning Apple over privacy concerns raised by an ex-contractor who transcribed users’ Siri requests in an effort to improve the voice assistant’s functionality.

Former Apple contractor Thomas le Bonniec this week said Apple should be “urgently investigated” over Siri data collection. It seems that the EU’s data protection authorities are listening.

“The DPC engaged with Apple on this issue when it first arose last summer and Apple has since made some changes,” Graham Doyle, deputy commissioner at the Irish DPC, told Reuters. Doyle said he followed up with Apple and currently awaits a response.

“In addition, it should be noted that the European Data Protection Board is working on the production of guidance in the area of voice assistant technologies,” he said.

Compared to other voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Siri still comes up short. That’s true, at least in part, due to Apple’s privacy-first approach with regard to user data. Cupertino’s commitment to privacy limits the AI assistant’s capabilities. Meanwhile, Siri’s competitors don’t face such rigid restrictions.

The Siri project described by the whistleblower aimed to make Siri better. However, the secret data harvesting flies in the face of Apple’s commitment to privacy.

Ireland investigates Siri privacy concerns

Whistleblower le Bonniec worked as a subcontractor at Apple’s Cork offices transcribing Siri requests. He says he quit his job in Ireland in the summer of 2019 over ethical concerns about Siri privacy. “I listened to hundreds of recordings every day, from various Apple devices (eg. iPhones, Apple Watches, or iPads),” he told The Guardian. “These recordings were often taken outside of any activation of Siri, eg in the context of an actual intention from the user to activate it for a request.”

In a letter to European data regulators, sent this week, le Bonniec wrote:

“I am extremely concerned that big tech companies are basically wiretapping entire populations despite European citizens being told the EU has one of the strongest data protection laws in the world. Passing a law is not good enough: it needs to be enforced upon privacy offenders.”

News of the Siri program first broke last year. Apple subsequently introduced new controls that let users decide what Siri data they share with Apple. (A Cult of Mac post shows how to stop Siri from snooping on you.)

It remains to be seen what steps the EU will take — if any — over this latest call for investigation. In the past, Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed admiration for the EU’s tight controls over data privacy. In a 2018 speech in Brussels, Cook decried tech companies that “know you better than you know yourselves” due to their data mining. “This is surveillance, and these stockpiles of personal data only enrich the companies that collect them,” Cook said.

Apple has long prided itself on its commitment to user privacy.