Employees of a company that is deployed by Apple listen in to Dutch-language recordings of the voice assistant Siri, without the company explicitly making that clear. The work was carried out by employees of the Irish company GlobeTech, according to statements from a whistleblower and documents held by NU.nl.
Apple will inform NU.nl on Friday morning that the company will stop listening to Siri fragments worldwide for the time being. This happened after a publication by The Guardian and after NU.nl had asked questions about the practices to the company.
The fragments that are listened to are usually voice recordings made after a user has said "Hey Siri" or pressed the Siri button to give the assistant a command. In a small part of the cases, however, the employees also heard unintended recordings, in which, for example, parts of conversations were returned.
Apple does not explicitly make it clear to Siri users that recordings can be listened to by others. A Dutch former GlobeTech employee who listened to Siri fragments a few years ago and checked transcripts, told NU.nl not to regard this as "the neatest way of doing business".
NU.nl came into contact with the whistleblower after VRT NWS and the NOS in July revealed that others can listen to Dutch recordings of the Google voting assistant. "Actually, I thought it was general knowledge. I was surprised that the article said it was unknown if Apple would do it."
See also: Apple stops listening to Siri fragments by people worldwide
Thousands of fragments per day
In conversation with NU.nl, the whistleblower describes how he and dozens of GlobeTech employees were told a total of thousands of excerpts every day to analyze them. "I worked with a group of about twenty Dutch people, but there were also people working on other languages. It was a fairly international group."
"We worked in a large room with all desks facing each other. The windows were covered with paper. On the desks there were MacBooks on which I could play, rewind, and so on. You could not use them for a few seconds to forty seconds. much longer. "
"Below was a text box in which I could improve the audio recording that was written. Sometimes the sentence was roughly correct, but one or two things had to be done about it in terms of language. And sometimes nothing was right at all."
"That way I had to process four hundred fragments a day. Sometimes you heard parts of conversations where you had to type a lot or things that were hard to understand, so that you had to listen a lot back. But in general it was good to do it. worked a bit, you had the four hundred fragments ready in three quarters of the day. "
"Apple responds the same as Google"
Apple said in a response to NU.nl that "a small proportion" of Siri requests is being analyzed to improve the virtual assistant. "The requests are not associated with the user's Apple ID."
Apple further states that less than 1 percent of daily Siri statements are listened to and judged by others. According to the company, this is also necessary to be able to determine whether the fragments have been recorded unintentionally.
"The same thing happens here as we saw a few weeks ago at Google," observes David Korteweg of privacy organization Bits of Freedom. "They both say that it concerns less than 1 percent of the recordings. I don't know how many fragments are processed per day, but then there will be millions. In that case, it will already be tens of thousands of recordings per day."
There are also risks associated with the analysis of unintended recordings, Korteweg says. "The people who perform this work do come into contact with potentially sensitive conversations with accidentally recorded fragments. Even a fragment that is not linked to your Apple ID can contain very revealing information."
"It is the sum that makes this problematic," he concludes. "Apple is not transparent about it: users don't know it is happening. Apparently Siri is still being wrongly activated. Moreover, the work is outsourced: they are not direct employees of Apple. They have a very different relationship with the company than permanent employees "
Apple says employees must meet the company's "strict confidentiality requirements," but it is unclear how they will be enforced. Google also announced on Thursday that the company will temporarily stop transcribing audio clips from the Google Assistant.
Analysis in multiple languages
NU.nl asked GlobeTech by e-mail on Monday about the work that the company is doing for Apple, but received no response. Also, repeated attempts to get someone to speak by phone for publication failed.
Several people write on LinkedIn profiles to work as a language analyst at GlobeTech. In some cases, it is also stated that the company's duties are being performed on behalf of Apple or is called Siri.
Current open GlobeTech vacancies for positions similar to those of the whistleblower indicate that the company is currently looking for people with knowledge of German, French, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Arabic and Hebrew in addition to Dutch analysts.
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