Tech

Apple whistleblower calls for privacy probes into Big Tech voice assistants

A former Apple contractor called on EU privacy watchdogs Wednesday to investigate the firms “past and present” use of Siri recordings nine months after reports emerged of the firm listening in without users knowledge.

“I request that you, as a data protection authority, set out to protect a fundamental right recognized throughout the Union, to take action and investigate Apples past and present practices (and of other tech companies following the same practices),” wrote Thomas Le Bonniec, who from May to July 2019 worked on a Siri transcription project in Cork, Ireland.

Last summer, the Guardian reported that contractors reviewed recordings made by Siri, Apples voice assistant, without the users knowledge, including when Siri was accidentally activated. The investigation followed similar reports about Amazons Alexa and Googles home assistant, as both companies also employed human reviewers to listen to recordings in order to improve the artificial intelligence technologys efficiency.

Since then, Apple said it moved to an opt-in system that requires users to proactively agree to have their recordings reviewed. Asked about the current program, a spokesperson for the company redirected POLITICO to blog posts from August and October which explain the changes made by the iPhone maker after the reports. “By default, we will no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions. We will continue to use computer-generated transcripts to help Siri improve,” Apple said.

Amazon said it would allow users to opt out from the human reviews and Google paused the reviews, which havent resumed since.

Last summer, both regulators said they had “questions” for Apple and Amazon, but decided not to initiate probes.

But despite the three companies publicly acknowledging that users might not have been fully aware of the listening programs at the time, no investigation was opened by the privacy regulators in charge of the companies.

Le Bonniec chose May 20 to send his letter because the date is days ahead of the European flagship privacy reforms second anniversary, he told POLITICO. The former Apple contractor hopes his public letter will pressure regulators to act and says hes ready to testify in future probes. He reached out to all European data protection authorities, to the European Data Protection Board, the European Data Protection Supervisor and privacy regulators in Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland.

Two years in, privacy regulators have yet to impose meaningful fines under the General Data Protection Regulation, raising questions about the ability — and, sometimes, the willingness — of data protection authorities to enforce the legislation.

“[The timing of the letter] is a reminder that we have legislation at EU level that is supposed to be good for something. Up until now, were under the impression that there was no repercussion after the Apple, Google revelations. And if we dont put pressure on Ireland, nothing will happen,” he said, adding that he was breaching his nondisclosure agreement to help regulators investigate.

Lost momentum

Under the GDPRs one-stop-shop mechanism, Irelands Data Protection Commission is responsible for Apple and Google, while the Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection is responsible for Amazon.

Last summer, both regulators said they had “questions” for Apple and Amazon, but decided not to initiate probes, arguing that the European Data Protection Board, the grouping of Europes privacy regulators, was working on EU-level guidelines on how to deal with voice assistants, which are expected later this year.

A spokesperson for the Luxembourg data protection authority said it was in regular contact with Amazon on a range of issues but declined to further comment on why it did not launch an investigation on Alexa because it was “bound by the obligation of professional secrecy.” A spokesperson for the Irish privacy regulator said, “Were still engaged with Apple on a number of fronts, were still getting answers to questions.”

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