Siri Privacy Whistleblower Unmasks to Urge Stricter Voice Assistant Privacy Regulation

The whistle-blower who first publicly revealed that Apple contractors were hearing recordings made by Siri doesn’t think the tech giant has done enough to protect people’s privacy. In a public letter written to European data protection regulators,  Thomas le Bonniec revealed his identity and explained his concern that Apple has not changed its methods and stricter enforcement is necessary.

 Siri Listening

Le Bonniec had been an Apple subcontractor Cork, Ireland until quitting in mid-2019. He cited ethical quandaries over having to hear unwittingly recorded private information as the reason for leaving the company and sharing his information with the press. Le Bonniec revealed last summer that contractors were listening to audio recordings made by Siri for quality control and improvement programs. Apple didn’t outright tell customers that recordings might be sent to contractors, with metadata about who they came from removed from the recording. The biggest problem was that those recordings could include a lot of private information that people didn’t know Siri heard. Medical discussions, criminal activity, and intimate encounters all made it to contractors, and, according to Le Bonniec, there wasn’t a system in place to deal with those kinds of audio records.

Every major and some minor voice assistant platform faced controversy over reports about their own similar programs. Nearly all of them paused or rapidly revised their contractor programs. Apple apologized for its program and changed it to an opt-in system, removing contractors from the equation entirely. The changes made by Apple, however, don’t solve the problem, according to Le Bonniec’s letter.

“It is worrying that Apple (and undoubtedly not just Apple) keeps ignoring and violating fundamental rights and continues their massive collection of data,” Le Bonniec wrote, according to a report in The Guardian. “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.”

Stricter Rules Needed

Le Bonniec clearly feels there still needs to be an investigation and more rigorous enforcement of privacy laws when it comes to Apple and other voice assistant platform developers. Questions about voice privacy have sparked a larger debate about how to regulate voice assistants, including a new law in Germany slotting them into a media category for easier regulation. Voice assistant developers want people to feel comfortable with the technology, especially as privacy and security are often the reasons given by people who choose not to use any voice assistant at all. Balancing that need with a desire to gather more data is going to be crucial if Apple and its rivals are to thread the needle in avoiding the kind of strict regulation that Le Bonniec is pushing for in his letter and that regulators have debated.


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