Apple Announces Changes to Siri Privacy, Audio Review, and Data Retention

Apple issued this press release this morning, and I think it’s appropriately apologetic:

As a result of our review, we realize we haven’t been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologize. As we previously announced, we halted the Siri grading program. We plan to resume later this fall when software updates are released to our users — but only after making the following changes:

  • First, by default, we will no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions. We will continue to use computer-generated transcripts to help Siri improve.

  • Second, users will be able to opt in to help Siri improve by learning from the audio samples of their requests. We hope that many people will choose to help Siri get better, knowing that Apple respects their data and has strong privacy controls in place. Those who choose to participate will be able to opt out at any time.

  • Third, when customers opt in, only Apple employees will be allowed to listen to audio samples of the Siri interactions. Our team will work to delete any recording which is determined to be an inadvertent trigger of Siri.

Asking users whether they want their requests to be used for Siri improvements and leaving the choice off by default is exactly the right response. Allowing only Apple employees to review the recordings of anyone who has opted in is also important; sensitive data should not be delegated to contractors.

But not having an option to opt out of transcripts is the weakest part of this response. On a separate FAQ page, Apple says that the only way to disable transcripts is to turn off Siri and dictation features entirely. I get that these are basically bug reports, but there’s something inherently queasy about automatic transcription of audio from a home or workplace being submitted to a company. I think transcripts could be lumped in with Apple’s opt-in analytics submission option as a reasonable middle ground.

Otherwise, this response is contrite and privacy-focused. They fucked up, they’re sorry, and they promise they will do better. That’s the best anyone could have hoped for.

A ramification of these changes is that hundreds of contracted workers in Ireland were laid off. That’s a horrible result for so many people. It reinforces that employees at tech companies need to carefully consider the impact of their product or service.