APPLE HAS SUSPENDED its Siri grading programme where contractors could eavesdrop on anonymised recordings made by iPhone owners.
Suspending, crucially, rather than axing it altogether. The implication is that it'll be back once users have the chance to opt-out of it.
"We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy," an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch. "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."
The public backlash against Apple is extra embarrassing because the company makes such a big deal about its privacy credentials, going as far as to post a 150-foot advert at CES telling the world how its secrets are safe on iPhone.
Well, not everyone's secrets, clearly. Contractors told the Guardian how employees had been they had heard all kinds of things from private medical records being discussed to couples having sex. Though not, presumably, at the same time. Unless that's your thing: don't let us yuck your yum.
"There have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on," the paper's source said. "These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data.
"The regularity of accidental triggers on the watch is incredibly high. The watch can record some snippets that will be 30 seconds - not that long but you can gather a good idea of what's going on."
Apple, and indeed any company that wants to make a genuinely smart virtual assistant, is in a bit of a bind here. Humans listening to our embarrassing late-night Siri chats would, rightly, creep out most people, but without this human QA, virtual assistants will never graduate from dunce to simpleton. There would certainly be little hope of them passing the Turing Test.
Seen through that lens, Apple's new approach of letting people opt-out is probably the right position to be in, if smart speakers really are the future. But the company could yet regret this approach if its privacy-first advertising slogans start to ring hollow. µ
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