Apple Inc. has put the brakes on an internal quality assurance program in which contractors listened to voice recordings captured by Siri.
The iPhone maker announced the move early this morning, saying the pause will give it time to conduct a review of the operation. Additionally, Apple pledged to release an opt-out choice as part of a future update to Siri.
The timing of the news is notable. Google, which runs a similar quality assurance program wherein workers listen to a limited subset of users’ interactions with Google Assistant, on Thursday paused the operation in Europe.
The search giant implemented the suspension in response to an order from German data protection authorities. In a statement, the Hamburg Commission for Data Protection and Freedom of Information said it will launch an investigation to determine if Google infringed upon users’ privacy. The body also called on Apple and Amazon.com Inc. to “swiftly review” their own use of voice assistant recordings.
The companies rely on human workers to enhance the machine learning algorithms powering their services. In the case of Apple, it assigns contractors to grade how accurately Siri interprets voice commands and flag cases where the assistant activates by mistake. The iPhone maker claims that fewere than 1% of users’ daily Siri interactions are used for quality assurance.
For the sake of privacy, Apple anonymizes recordings by removing users’ names and Apple IDs. But a recent report from The Guardian suggests that the process may be far from perfect. According to an Apple contractor who spoke with the publication, workers tasked with reviewing Siri conversations “regularly” hear sensitive details such as doctor’s appointments, information that in some cases can reveal a user’s identity.
The scrutiny over who’s listening to consumers’ conversations with voice assistants may prompt Amazon to pause reviews of user recordings as well. As it stands, the company is currently the only one of the three major players in this market that hasn’t done so yet. In April, it emerged that Amazon employs thousands of people to transcribe Alexa conversations as part of a program to improve the assistant’s voice recognition.
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