Apple has been paying contractors to listen to millions of iPhone and iPad users querying Siri, allowing them to hear a lot of highly private information, such as medical discussions, business deals, drug deals, and even sexual activities, according to an exposé published by The Guardian and the Irish Examiner.
Globetech, a Cork, Ireland-based contractor, provided Apple with the manpower of 300 employees who had to listen to, transcribe, and rate 1,000 Siri queries and responses per shift. Many of those recordings contained confidential information that made some of the contractors uncomfortable, considering that Apple’s consumer privacy guidelines don’t let on that other people may be listening.
“A whistleblower working for the firm, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears over their job, expressed concerns about this lack of disclosure, particularly given the frequency with which accidental activations pick up extremely sensitive personal information,” The Guardian reported.
Apple’s virtual assistant Siri can easily be activated by mistake and indeed, it often is when an iPhone or iPad hears the wake words “Hey Siri” or something similar. That happened to UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson when he was addressing the Commons last month. His iPhone, tucked inside his shirt pocket, activated when it heard the word “Syria.”
“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 whistleblower told The Guardian. “These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data.”
The whistleblower said the “the regularity of accidental triggers” is “incredibly high,” especially on Apple Watches and Apple HomePods. And while Apple maintains that the Siri recordings reviewed by contractors are anonymized, they are still accompanied by a lot of information that could make it easy to personally identify the user.
In addition to the highly sensitive information some of the recordings contain, the whistleblower was also troubled by the potential for the recordings to be misused by those who listen in on them. According to the informant, there is very little vetting of the contracted workers and they are free to look through broad swaths of data.
“It wouldn’t be difficult to identify the person that you’re listening to, especially with accidental triggers – addresses, names and so on,” the whistleblower told The Guardian. At the very least, Apple should make its customers aware that humans may listen to their electronic communications and stop misleading people about their privacy.
Apple often differentiates itself from other tech companies by touting its concerns for consumer privacy as a competitive advantage over Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. For instance, earlier this year, it bought a billboard at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas announcing that “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.”
However, Apple actually handles its customers’ privacy in much the same way as its competitors, who have been found eavesdropping in similar ways.
Amazon employees around the world regularly listen to recordings between customers and Alexa, Amazon’s artificial-intelligence-powered assistant.
Google employees systematically listen to audio recordings captured by Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant smartphone app, including the conversations people have in the privacy of their own homes.
Earlier in August, Facebook confirmed that external contractors are listening to audio of customers’ private conversations.
Similarly, Microsoft’s Cortana collects a lot of information about its users and their interests. In a recent update to its privacy policies, Microsoft admitted that its employees listen to some Skype and Cortana recordings.
Beasley Allen has an experienced group of lawyers dedicated to handling whistleblower cases. The lawyers on our firm’s Whistleblower Litigation Team are Larry Golston, Lance Gould, and Paul Evans. These lawyers will be glad to discuss any potential whistleblower claim either in person or by phone.