Hey Siri! Stop recording and sharing my private conversations.

“Voice assistants have a dark side, and we may be paying for their limited benefits with our privacy”

A news story in the Guardian last week confirmed what many Apple users likely already suspected: Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, has the power to record private conversations, and these audio clips aren’t always just stored on a server – a number of samples are passed along to third-party, human contractors who are paid to listen to them.

This isn’t as simple as a voice assistant “spying” on its users: the report revealed that Apple’s contractors listen to the clips as part of the company’s quality control measures, working out whether Siri was triggered accidentally or on purpose, and whether its response was entirely correct.

This practice is not explicit in Apple’s customer-facing privacy documentation, and due to errors in triggering Siri – “the sound of a zip”, the whistleblower said, can often set Siri off – contractors end up overhearing private conversations including drug deals, business meetings, sex, and private medical appointments.

In one way this news is far from shocking – while Apple trades on the assertion that high-level security comes included with its products’ high prices, it has always been clear that by using Siri, or any voice assistant, the user must allow their phone to record and analyze their voice. It’s also worth comparing Apple’s approach with that of similar products.

With Google Assistant, the software powering Google Home, audio is recorded and stored, but you can access your history and delete past recordings, and there’s an option to automatically delete your data every couple of months.

Amazon’s Alexa stores query until the user manually deletes them, and both Amazon and Google employ contractors to review a small number of their recordings (Google has stated in interviews that it “generally” provides a text transcript rather than the original voice recording, to third-party contractors).

Microsoft’s Cortana collects voice data in order to improve its service, while Samsung’s Bixby does the same, involving a third-party service for speech-to-text conversion.

Voice assistants are recording and listening to their users – what’s new? But there’s a subtler truth here worth considering: AI-powered “intelligent assistants”, lauded as efficient and effortless to use, are failing at answering even basic questions, and often activate accidentally at inappropriate times (well-known incidents include Siri interrupting the secretary of defense during a speech on Syria in the House of Commons, gatecrashing a White House press briefing and contributing to a TV news broadcast).

These products aren’t even 100% automated – behind the gleaming, smooth-voiced interfaces are underpaid, overworked and resolutely human contractors. These are people who are precariously employed, often denied full employment rights and with little allegiance to the companies they work for, but hired to fill in the gaps in artificial intelligence.

This is by far the most dystopian element to the story: in exchange for giving away our privacy to tech multinationals the services of stressed-out humans are behind the machines. Technology is no different to how fast fashion or fast food is produced – much of the heavy lifting is done in “sweatshops” out of sight, staffed by people.

Voice is hailed as the future of computing, including voice assistants, voice-recognition technology, ambient computing and the widespread use of smart speakers in the home. But voice is also the future of surveillance: earlier this year the Intercept revealed a nationwide database of voice samples collected in US prisons, while another story detailed the National Security Agency’s voice-recognition systems, including a project called Voice RT (“Voice in Real-Time”) that aimed to identify the “voiceprint” of any living person. Human rights activists have criticized the establishment of a voice biometric database in China, while the invention of “deep voice” software, a deepfake for voices, augurs ill for the future of voice-based privacy services.

We live in a time of constant technological change and it’s likely that soon these services really will improve, and be fully automated. We can also take some solace in the fact that the Siri voice clips are at least anonymized, and generally last no more than several seconds. But this leak reveals that the qualities Apple uses to differentiate itself from its competitors are little more than hollow marketing and that as Apple’s software is proprietary we have no choice but to either engage with it on its own terms or avoid using its platform entirely.

We’re told that with AI, the more we allow it to watch us, the more sophisticated the service will become, but it’s worth remembering that the first duty of the companies developing it is to their shareholders. At the moment, we tolerate limitless surveillance in exchange for an extremely limited service. While there’s still time – if there’s still time – we need to consider what we gain and what we lose when we live with machines that mine us for information.

By Roisin Kiberd who writes about technology, culture and the intersection between the two.

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