After Whistleblower Letter, Irish Regulators are Asking Apple About the Revised Siri Recording Program
Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) is discussing potential privacy violations by Apple and the Siri voice assistant. The communication began almost immediately after Thomas le Bonniec sent a letter to European data protection regulators explaining that he didn’t think Apple had changed its behavior. Le Bonniec is also the original whistle-blower who alleged that Apple contractors were hearing recordings made by Siri.
The letter sent by le Bonniec to regulators revealed him as the original anonymous source for stories last summer that contractors were listening to audio recordings made by Siri for quality control and improvement programs. The big issues being the private information inadvertently shared by people when they didn’t know Siri was listening or who might hear their conversations. Apple had no system for handling that data, meaning people heard it who should not have, according to le Bonniec. Almost every voice assistant platform faced similar scrutiny for their similar programs. They 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. Citing his experience as an Apple subcontractor in Cork, Ireland, le Bonniec claims that Apple’s behavior hasn’t actually changed since then and that stricter enforcement is necessary. His new letter prompted the DPC to return to the matter and check up on Apple.
“The DPC engaged with Apple on this issue when it first arose last summer and Apple has since made some changes,” Irish DPC deputy commissioner Graham Doyle said in a statement. “However, we have followed up again with Apple following the release of this public statement and await responses. 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.”
What steps Apple and other voice assistant developers should take to reassure people of their safety isn’t obvious, but clearly the regulators are paying closer attention after last year’s flurry of privacy violation accusations. A new German law is adjusting how they are regulated in the long-term, but there’s a lot of messy detail to be untangled. Regulation gets even harder as this technology continues to evolve as well. That audio information collected by Siri and other voice assistants is crucial for a lot of the plans voice assistant developers have for their creations, but they won’t be much help if people are too nervous to use a voice assistant. Stricter regulation is likely to annoy Apple and its rivals, but it may be a blessing in disguise. If the parameters for what’s allowed and what isn’t are clear, then the developers can work within that framework and look for solutions that fit the legal requirements. That’s going to end up saving more time and money than endless battles around sometimes amorphous rules, which is what Apple has to face at the moment.