whistlerblower calls out for more action over siri voice recordings

If you are an avid Apple user who enjoys the perks of virtual assistant – Siri, you might be interested to find out that earlier this week, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) contacted Apple again, after one of the dissatisfied whistleblowers called for action over processing Siri voice recordings.

Whistleblower Thomas Le Bonniec worked as a former Apple subcontractor from May 2019 till July 2019 on a project called “Bulk Data”, transcribing user requests in English and French.

After filing a complaint, with few other colleagues, over the issues with voice records last year, in his letter addressed to the European privacy regulators, he stated his disappointment by the authorities asking them to take action. He also reported the company for “massive violation of the privacy of millions of citizens” stating:

“I am extremely concerned that big tech companies are basically wiretapping entire populations despite European citizens being told the EU has one of the strongest data protection laws in the world. Passing a law is not good enough: it needs to be enforced upon privacy offenders.”

“Bulk Data” project

According to Le Bonniec, the aim of this project was to listen to the recordings received from Apple devices in France and correct the transcriptions of Apple’s vocal assistant (Siri). Recordings taken from various Apple devices like iWatch, iPhone, or an iPad, were oftentimes collected without users being aware of it and without activation of a virtual assistant by user.

The collection of data was not limited to Apple users only, but also involved anyone who was in the range of the device, including children, family, coworkers and friends. Le Bonniec reported, “The system recorded everything: names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, background noises, films, and conversations.”

The DPCs’ response

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is under a lot of pressure to investigate major data processing activities of companies located in Silicon Docks, the European equivalent of Silicon Valley, well-known for its concentration of high-tech companies headquarters, home of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and many other.

Irish Deputy Commissioner at the DPC stated for Reuters “…we have followed up again with Apple following the release of this public statement and await responses in reference to the letter.

However, Le Bonniec is sure that “nothing has been done to verify if Apple actually stopped the program” claiming his sources already confirmed the program is ongoing and is asking for immediate action by the authorities.

Is spying the usual practice of tech giants?

Virtual assistants are emerging technology, with more companies providing devices that can be voice-operated. However, there is a serious risk of glitches that enable those devices to activate on similar words or by accident and start recording. Not to mention the processing also involves people who tag these recordings to identify what virtual assistant was required to do. Le Bonniec stated:

“It is worrying that Apple (and undoubtedly not just Apple) keeps ignoring and violating fundamental rights and continues their massive collection of data.”

Not so long ago, the DPC issued a statement saying they are currently investigating how voice assistant products from Amazon and Google comply with data protection requirements.

According to DPCs’ Annual Report for 2019, there is a significant 75% increase in the total number of complaints in 2019, and 21 multinational technology company statutory inquiries commenced since 25 May 2018 that involves Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Apple, Quantcast, and more. However, there are no fines issued yet to any of those companies regarding this matter.

What will DPC discover on their second take on this case, remains to be seen.