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Cork-based Apple Siri whistleblower urges action against tech giant

'I am extremely concerned that big tech companies are basically wiretapping entire populations'

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Stock photo: REUTERS

Stock photo: REUTERS

REUTERS

Stock photo: REUTERS

The Cork-based Apple contractor involved last year in exposing Apple’s Siri ‘grading’ system for improving the voice-recognition technology, has written to European data protection commissioners to complain about a lack of sanctions against the tech giant.

Thomas Le Bonniac, who worked on ‘grading’ Siri to improve its accuracy by listening to some customers’ recordings, says that he is disappointed no firm action has been taken by privacy regulators against Apple.

“I listened to hundreds of recordings every day, from various Apple devices (eg. iPhones, Apple Watches, or iPads),” he wrote. “These recordings were often taken outside of any activation of Siri, in the context of an actual intention from the user to activate it for a request. These processings were made without users being aware of it, and were gathered into datasets to correct the transcription of the recording made by the device.”

“The system recorded everything...names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, background noises, films, and conversations. I heard people talking about their cancer, referring to dead relatives, religion, sexuality, pornography, politics, school, relationships, or drugs with no intention to activate Siri whatsoever.”

“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.”

Apple apologised last year for not declaring that it was grading the Siri technology with human workers. It altered the activity so that only people who opt in to the ‘grading’ practice may have some voice commands checked for accuracy.

Apple was one of a number of big tech firms that had to apologise over the same issue.

Amazon, Google and Facebook all received public censure last year for having workers listen in to recordings from their voice recognition technology.

The tech firms all say that they need to do this to make sure that the software is accurately understanding our voice commands.

But reports have emerged that some of the recordings include intensely personal moments of intimacy or conflict.

“As a result of our review, we realise we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologise,” said Apple in a previous statement on the matter.

Graham Doyle, assistant Data Protection Commissioner, said that the Irish privacy office had taken action on the issue.

“We engaged with Apple at the time [last year] and the company implemented changes, which can be seen with consent now required. We continue to engage with the company on this.”

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the matter.

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