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Apple and Google temporarily stop listening to Siri and OK Google queries


An Apple Watch on a person's wrist, with the Siri voice assistant activated.
Enlarge / An Apple Watch Nike+ Series 4.

Getty Images | Wachiwit

Apple workers have stopped listening to Siri queries worldwide, the company said this week. Apple plans to bring back human reviews of Siri voice recordings at some unspecified date, but the company said it will only review them when customers specifically opt in to the practice.

Separately, Google today confirmed that it recently “paused” human reviews of Google Assistant queries worldwide.

Apple’s decision to stop having humans listen to Siri queries follows a report last week that contractors who review the recordings for accuracy heard private discussions and even sexual encounters.

Apple calls the human reviews of Siri recordings “grading.”

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” Apple told Ars and other news organizations. “While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally. Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

Apple had no further comment, a spokesperson said.

Google “paused reviews globally”

A German investigation into Google began after a Google contractor leaked 1,000 voice recordings to VRT NWS, a news organization run by a public broadcaster in the Flemish region of Belgium. VRT NWS reviewed the recordings and was able to identify some of the people who were recorded. VRT NWS also said that 153 of the 1,000 recordings it listened to “were conversations that should never have been recorded and during which the command ‘OK Google’ was clearly not given.”

“Shortly after we learned about the leaking of confidential Dutch audio data, we paused language reviews of the Assistant to investigate. This paused reviews globally,” Google told Ars today.

Google previously told Ars that “You must opt in to have your audio recordings stored to your account, and Voice and Audio Activity is not required to use the Google Assistant.”

“You can turn off storing audio data to your Google account completely, or choose to auto-delete data after every three months or 18 months,” the company noted today. The ability to turn off storage of voice activity can be found in Google activity controls.

Google didn’t say when it will resume human reviews of Google Assistant recordings. However, Google was ordered by German authorities to stop human evaluations of Google Assistant queries for at least three months.

Google confirmed to those authorities “that transcriptions of voice recordings will no longer be carried out at present and for at least three months from 1 August 2019,” according to the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI). This covers all recordings in the European Union, the agency said.

The three-month ban “is intended to provisionally protect the rights of privacy of data subjects for the time being,” while data protection authorities investigate and consider a more permanent solution, the HmbBfDI said.

Apple stores voice recordings

As The Verge noted, Apple’s new statement did not say whether it will stop storing Siri voice recordings on its servers. “Currently the company says it keeps recordings for six months before removing identifying information from a copy that it could keep for two years or more,” The Verge report said.

Apple told The Guardian last week that it has humans review “a small portion” of Siri requests “to improve Siri and dictation.”

“User requests are not associated with the user’s Apple ID,” Apple also said. “Siri responses are analyzed in secure facilities and all reviewers are under the obligation to adhere to Apple’s strict confidentiality requirements.” Fewer than 1% of Siri recordings are analyzed by humans, and “those used are typically only a few seconds long,” Apple also told the newspaper.

Amazon also has humans reviewing Alexa recordings, which are stored indefinitely unless customers delete them. We asked Amazon today if it is stopping the voice reviews, and we’ll update this article if we get a response.

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