Siri whistleblower says Apple should face investigations over grading controversy

Posted:
in General Discussion edited November 2020
Nearly a year after he revealed that Apple contractors were listening in on Siri recordings, the whistleblower has gone public and feels that Apple wasn't sufficiently punished for its actions.




In a letter to European data protection regulation agencies, Thomas le Bonniec has revealed himself as the whistleblower who declared in July 2019 that Apple was mishandling consumer Siri queries.

"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 The Guardian on Wednesday morning. "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."

Le Bonniec repeated many of his claims that he made in 2019, and says that Apple should be "urgently investigated" by data protection authorities and privacy watchdogs. He adds that "Apple has not been subject to any kind of investigation to the best of my knowledge."

Shortly after the allegations surfaced, Apple suspended the grading program while it performed a program review. It also added an opt-in or opt-out element for the program in iOS 13.2.

The Siri grading controversy

At the time, Apple did not explicitly disclose to consumers that recordings were passed along to contractors -- but Apple has told users in terms of service documents that some queries are manually reviewed, and has since the release of the service. Despite the information having been public-facing for at least six iterations of iOS, le Bonniec was concerned over the lack of disclosure, especially considering the contents of some recordings containing "extremely sensitive personal information."

The nature of the information, sometimes unintentional and not part of the query, is wide-ranging, the whistleblower said in July 2019.

"You can definitely hear a doctor and patient, talking about the medical history of the patient," said le Bonniec at the time. "Or you'd hear someone, maybe with car engine background noise - you can't say definitely, but it's a drug deal. You can definitely hearing it happening," he said.

Le Bonniec went on to state there were many recordings "featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data."

Allegedly, there wasn't a procedure in place to deal with sensitive recordings, with the whistleblower stepping forward over the suggestion the data could be easily misused. Citing a lack of vetting for employees and the broad amount of data provided, Le Bonniec suggested that "it wouldn't be difficult to identify the person you're listening to, especially with accidental triggers" like names and addresses, especially for "someone with nefarious intentions."

Apple initially confirmed "A small portion of Siri requests are analyzed to improve Siri and dictation," but added it was kept as secure as possible.

"User requests are not associated with the user's Apple ID," the company continued, "Siri responses are analyzed in secure facilities and all reviewers are under the obligation to adhere to Apple's strict confidentiality requirements."

Apple added that a random subset of less than 1% of daily Siri activations are used for grading, recordings typically only a few seconds in length.

At the end of August, Apple completed its review and confirmed changes would be made, including the option to opt in for audio sample analysis, and that only Apple employees -- and not contractors -- would be allowed to listen to the samples. Apple would also no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions in favor of using computer-generated transcripts to improve Siri, and would also "work to delete" any recording which is determined to be an inadvertent trigger of Siri.

The report followed a year of similar privacy-related stories about Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa, where teams had access to some customer data logs with recordings, for similar review purposes.

In the Amazon case, the captured voice data was associated with user accounts. In regards to Google, a researcher provided a voice snippet that Google retained to analysis to the reporter that made the request -- but Google says that the samples aren't identifiable by user information. How the user was identified by the researcher isn't clear.

Keep up with all the Apple news with your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Say, "Hey, Siri, play AppleInsider Daily," -- or bookmark this link -- and you'll get a fast update direct from the AppleInsider team.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 18
    zimmermannzimmermann Posts: 327member
    It all sound so un-Apple, meaning: not well thought out. Not thinking things through. Strange.
    williamlondonlkrupp
  • Reply 2 of 18
    mac_dogmac_dog Posts: 1,070member
    So how is it a violation of privacy if it is opt in?
    Even I know about this and I’ve dropped out of the tech scene for a while now. He sounds desperate. 

    Money, notoriety, relevance or all of the above? Perhaps he should get an essential job and start doing something productive with all this time he’s got on his hands. 
    williamlondon
  • Reply 3 of 18
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,557member

    "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 The Guardian on Wednesday morning. "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.”


    Yet I’m willing to bet this guy is just fine with government contact tracing apps.
    williamlondonentropys
  • Reply 4 of 18
    flydogflydog Posts: 1,127member
    As usual, much ado about nothing. This clown greatly exaggerates the nature and scope of the recordings, which as most people who use Siri know, can’t be more than a few seconds long. It’s a stretch to call this “wiretapping,” and the claim that Apple collected location and identity data is flat out false. 
    williamlondonviclauyyc
  • Reply 5 of 18
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,557member
    How can any of these digital assistant devices improve their ability to understand human speech without samplings and monitoring made by humans?
    williamlondon
  • Reply 6 of 18
    williamlondonwilliamlondon Posts: 1,327member
    Seems this story is more about fashioning himself as Edward Snowden 2020, a lot of hullaballoo over nothing while the rest of the world burns. Also, the BBC would have been a better place for this story given how much they *hate* Apple.
  • Reply 7 of 18
    CloudTalkinCloudTalkin Posts: 916member
    mac_dog said:
    So how is it a violation of privacy if it is opt in?
    Even I know about this and I’ve dropped out of the tech scene for a while now. He sounds desperate. 

    Money, notoriety, relevance or all of the above? Perhaps he should get an essential job and start doing something productive with all this time he’s got on his hands. 
    You seem to have misread the article.  The claims of privacy violations come before the implementation of opt in.  Opt-in is one of the responses from Apple as a result of his whistleblowing.  His motivations are immaterial.  Along with others, he brought to light how tech companies were handling our voice data without our knowledge.  Perhaps you should give thanks to his actions for helping make control of your data more your choice than it was before.  Or keep throwing shade.  Either way, we now have opt-in.  

    I disagree with his position that Apple wasn't sufficiently punished.  They were, they all were.  They were all also put on notice that surreptitious data collection isn't acceptable with customers.  If they are found to be doing the same type of collection in the future the punishment should escalate. 
    lkruppwilliamlondongatorguyronnmuthuk_vanalingamentropysGeorgeBMac
  • Reply 8 of 18
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,802member
    flydog said:
    As usual, much ado about nothing. This clown greatly exaggerates the nature and scope of the recordings, which as most people who use Siri know, can’t be more than a few seconds long. It’s a stretch to call this “wiretapping,” and the claim that Apple collected location and identity data is flat out false. 
    Exactly. Sounds to me like someone got his fifteen minutes of fame and wants more. 
    williamlondon
  • Reply 9 of 18
    DAalseth said:
    flydog said:
    As usual, much ado about nothing. This clown greatly exaggerates the nature and scope of the recordings, which as most people who use Siri know, can’t be more than a few seconds long. It’s a stretch to call this “wiretapping,” and the claim that Apple collected location and identity data is flat out false. 
    Exactly. Sounds to me like someone got his fifteen minutes of fame and wants more. 
    How so?  The guy was an anonymous whistleblower so he got  no 15 minutes of fame.  Now, one could claim outing himself served to garner the 15 minutes, but why would anyone claim that?  The guy's a whistleblower.  Wouldn't a more logical conclusion be the guy is all bent out of shape because his "sacrifice" only garnered the equivalent of a stern finger shaking?  My man really didn't get his [shakes fist] "somebody must pay" moment.  

    We got more data transparency from the companies, so he accomplished something at least.  Maybe we should thank him for his service.
    edited May 2020 gatorguywilliamlondonGeorgeBMac
  • Reply 10 of 18
    jdb8167jdb8167 Posts: 626member
    DAalseth said:
    flydog said:
    As usual, much ado about nothing. This clown greatly exaggerates the nature and scope of the recordings, which as most people who use Siri know, can’t be more than a few seconds long. It’s a stretch to call this “wiretapping,” and the claim that Apple collected location and identity data is flat out false. 
    Exactly. Sounds to me like someone got his fifteen minutes of fame and wants more. 
    How so?  The guy was an anonymous whistleblower so he got  no 15 minutes of fame.  Now, one could claim outing himself served to garner the 15 minutes, but why would anyone claim that?  The guy's a whistleblower.  Wouldn't a more logical conclusion be the guy is all bent out of shape because his "sacrifice" only garnered the equivalent of a stern finger shaking?  My man really didn't get his [shakes fist] "somebody must pay" moment.  

    We got more data transparency from the companies, so he accomplished something at least.  Maybe we should thank him for his service.
    It sounds more like he doesn’t believe that Apple has actually made a policy change and is still recording users without disclosure. That’s why he wants an investigation. There are plenty of people who think all corporations lie about everything. Most of us on this site are more likely to believe that Apple has made the required change and is doing the right thing. Without an investigation, some people will never believe it.

    Edit to add: I agree that we should be thankful for his initial disclosure. More privacy is a always better. Apple screwed up and seems to have admitted that they did and are going to pay a pretty hefty fine. 

    Edit 2: Apparently I’m wrong about the fine, I think I was conflating the $500 million throttling suit and the $25 million Siri patent suit. I can’t find any evidence that Apple has been fined for recording Siri conversations. So the whistleblower may have a point about no consequences for Apple.
    edited May 2020 williamlondon
  • Reply 11 of 18
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,802member
    DAalseth said:
    flydog said:
    As usual, much ado about nothing. This clown greatly exaggerates the nature and scope of the recordings, which as most people who use Siri know, can’t be more than a few seconds long. It’s a stretch to call this “wiretapping,” and the claim that Apple collected location and identity data is flat out false. 
    Exactly. Sounds to me like someone got his fifteen minutes of fame and wants more. 
    How so?  The guy was an anonymous whistleblower so he got  no 15 minutes of fame.  Now, one could claim outing himself served to garner the 15 minutes, but why would anyone claim that?  The guy's a whistleblower.  Wouldn't a more logical conclusion be the guy is all bent out of shape because his "sacrifice" only garnered the equivalent of a stern finger shaking?  My man really didn't get his [shakes fist] "somebody must pay" moment.  

    We got more data transparency from the companies, so he accomplished something at least.  Maybe we should thank him for his service.
    Didn’t realize he had previously stayed anonymous. So he really wanted his fifteen. 
    Not buying the altruistic angle. From all reports Apple, (not necessarily google or amazon though) were primarily concerned with why Hey Siri requests failed. They clipped just the first couple or three seconds and then checked the servers for what Siri thought the user had said. No data tracking. No location tracking. No data mining. No spying on people at all hours of the day. Just finding out why Siri is such an imbecile. When I heard about it my instant reaction was “yes of course they have to do quality control checks, duh” and I haven’t changed that opinion. Yes, there’s more transparency. When we load an update is asks us if we are willing to let Apple do quality checks. I always check yes. I suspect bloody well nearly everyone else does as well, in most cases because most people don’t know or care about it. 

    So this guy is all bent out of shape because Apple just got a stern finger shaking. Hey I got them worlds smallest violin I can play a sad tune on for him. His somebody must pay moment was (IMO only of course) his hope for a somebody must pay ME moment. 
    williamlondon
  • Reply 12 of 18
    DAalseth said:  
    Didn’t realize he had previously stayed anonymous. So he really wanted his fifteen. 
    Not buying the altruistic angle. From all reports Apple, (not necessarily google or amazon though) were primarily concerned with why Hey Siri requests failed. They clipped just the first couple or three seconds and then checked the servers for what Siri thought the user had said. No data tracking. No location tracking. No data mining. No spying on people at all hours of the day. Just finding out why Siri is such an imbecile. When I heard about it my instant reaction was “yes of course they have to do quality control checks, duh” and I haven’t changed that opinion. Yes, there’s more transparency. When we load an update is asks us if we are willing to let Apple do quality checks. I always check yes. I suspect bloody well nearly everyone else does as well, in most cases because most people don’t know or care about it. 

    So this guy is all bent out of shape because Apple just got a stern finger shaking. Hey I got them worlds smallest violin I can play a sad tune on for him. His somebody must pay moment was (IMO only of course) his hope for a somebody must pay ME moment. 
    Hmmm, interesting.  All three issued basically the same statement regarding their use case: they were all collecting samples for improvement. In other words, they were all data mining. It's the essence of why the data was collected in the first place: for it to be mined as part of the improvement processes of each company's assistant.  So it's funny (not funny ha ha) how you characterize Apple's motivations differently.  I guess we all make allowances for our favorites.  Not criticizing you. Just making an observation.

    Not really sure how you got he was looking for some type of financial gain.  Seems a bit of reach without cause.  Just seems like he's bent out shape because the punishment wasn't harsher.
    gatorguyOnPartyBusinesswilliamlondon
  • Reply 13 of 18
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    lkrupp said:

    "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 The Guardian on Wednesday morning. "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.”


    Yet I’m willing to bet this guy is just fine with government contact tracing apps.

    LOL.... equating corporate level snooping to Contact Tracing?
    Very False Equivalency.

    One is (debatidly) snooping for fun and profit.
    The other is to save tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of lives and possible destruction of the economy. 
    ....  Take your blindfold off and use it as a mask.
    edited May 2020
  • Reply 14 of 18
    pdwmpdwm Posts: 8member

    If you don’t think that this is very serious, you need to note what Shoshana Zuboff has to say about it in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,". Dosn't matter if it’s Government or Corporations.

    If one employs contractors then the Corp/Gov has much, much less control.

    This only happened the other day when UK Gov employed a notorious slovenly contractor in relation to the Civid-19 issue!

  • Reply 15 of 18
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    pdwm said:

    If you don’t think that this is very serious, you need to note what Shoshana Zuboff has to say about it in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,". Dosn't matter if it’s Government or Corporations.

    If one employs contractors then the Corp/Gov has much, much less control.

    This only happened the other day when UK Gov employed a notorious slovenly contractor in relation to the Civid-19 issue!


    Yes, anybody can be sloppy or corrupt.
    But slamming private and public into the same box is misled.
    One mostly has the best interests of stockholders as its priority.
    The other has the best interests of its people as its priority.  And, if it doesn't, those same people can replace it.
  • Reply 16 of 18
    jony0jony0 Posts: 378member

    "You can definitely hear a doctor and patient, talking about the medical history of the patient,"  […]  "Or you'd hear someone, maybe with car engine background noise - you can't say definitely, but it's a drug deal. You can definitely hearing it happening," he said.

    Le Bonniec went on to state there were many recordings "featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. […]"

    Are we still talking about Siri requests, such was "Where's the nearest …" or "Play some artist's song …" or "Set timer for …" ???
    • What kind of doctor invokes Siri to talk with his patient ?
    • What kind of dealer would invoke Siri to make a drug deal ?
    Clearly the examples given must be all accidental triggers and it would seem trivial for Apple to simply reject any sound byte longer than a typical request of seconds, since there is hardly no value for 'improvement' if it's any longer than a given time. Shame on Apple or the contractor if that's not the case. However if they were trying to improve dictation that's another matter and shouldn't even mention Siri in the report, that's just clickbait.
    GeorgeBMac
  • Reply 17 of 18
    pdwmpdwm Posts: 8member
    pdwm said:

    If you don’t think that this is very serious, you need to note what Shoshana Zuboff has to say about it in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,". Dosn't matter if it’s Government or Corporations.

    If one employs contractors then the Corp/Gov has much, much less control.

    This only happened the other day when UK Gov employed a notorious slovenly contractor in relation to the Civid-19 issue!


    Yes, anybody can be sloppy or corrupt.
    But slamming private and public into the same box is misled.
    One mostly has the best interests of stockholders as its priority.
    The other has the best interests of its people as its priority.  And, if it doesn't, those same people can replace it.

    The other has the best interests of its people as its priority.  And, if it doesn't, those same people can replace it.

    That may be the case, but that still doesn’t get the data back under lock and key.

  • Reply 18 of 18
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 11,421member
    pdwm said:
    pdwm said:

    If you don’t think that this is very serious, you need to note what Shoshana Zuboff has to say about it in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,". Dosn't matter if it’s Government or Corporations.

    If one employs contractors then the Corp/Gov has much, much less control.

    This only happened the other day when UK Gov employed a notorious slovenly contractor in relation to the Civid-19 issue!


    Yes, anybody can be sloppy or corrupt.
    But slamming private and public into the same box is misled.
    One mostly has the best interests of stockholders as its priority.
    The other has the best interests of its people as its priority.  And, if it doesn't, those same people can replace it.

    The other has the best interests of its people as its priority.  And, if it doesn't, those same people can replace it.

    That may be the case, but that still doesn’t get the data back under lock and key.


    How many lives are worth your personal privacy?  One?  Five? Ten?  a Hundred?   a Thousand?
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