Apple Just Gave 1.5 Billion iPad, iPhone Users A Reason To Leave


Apple has got a lot right recently, including its iPhone 12 pricing and its big iOS Coronavirus-focused update. But the company has also now given its 1.5 billion iPhone and iPad users worldwide a good reason to leave.

Last year, The Guardian broke a shocking story that Apple was employing contractors to listen to and ‘grade’ Siri recordings. This was done without users knowledge and contractors “regularly” heard confidential information from iPhone and iPad owners, including medical information, drug deals and recordings of couples having sex. Apple subsequently issued a full apology, admitting “we have not been fully living up to our high ideals.” But now, according to The Guardian’s whistleblower, we are learning that nothing has changed.

Revealing his identity for the first time, Thomas le Bonniec, a contractor employed to listen to and grade Siri recordings, has written to data protection regulators stating that Apple “keeps ignoring and violating fundamental rights and continues their massive collection of data.” Describing his role in detail, he writes:

“I listened to hundreds of recordings every day, from various Apple devices (eg. iPhones, Apple Watches, or iPads). These recordings were often taken outside of any activation of Siri, eg in the context of an actual intention from the user to activate it for a request. These processings were made without users being aware of it, and were gathered into datasets to correct the transcription of the recording made by the device.

“The recordings were not limited to the users of Apple devices, but also involved relatives, children, friends, colleagues, and whoever could be recorded by the device. The system recorded everything: names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, background noises, films, and conversations. I heard people talking about their cancer, referring to dead relatives, religion, sexuality, pornography, politics, school, relationships, or drugs with no intention to activate Siri whatsoever.

“These practices are clearly at odds with the company’s ‘privacy-driven’ policies and should be urgently investigated by data protection authorities and Privacy watchdogs. With the current statement, I want to bring this issue to your attention, and also offer my cooperation to provide any element substantiating these facts. Although this case has already gone public, Apple has not been subject to any kind of investigation to the best of my knowledge.”

05/23 Update: adding further complexity to this issue, a new ruling has confirmed that the FBI cannot even look at the lockscreen of a suspect’s iPhone without a warrant. Picked up by Ars Technica, the new limitations restrict looking at a suspect’s smartphone to just the arresting agents and only at the time of the arrest. All of which means privacy laws around technology are tightening rapidly and this is likely to have a significant impact on what can and cannot be extracted from your smartphone, even by its creator.

While Le Bonniec rounds primarily on Apple, he is also highly critical of the lack of action taken against Apple and big tech companies in general, saying “I am extremely concerned that [they] are basically wiretapping entire populations”.

It is important to note that Apple’s so-called wiretapping is not an isolated case. Amazon, Google and Facebook have admitted to similar practices but none trade on privacy as a selling point like Apple. In fact, the company’s Privacy Page declares “At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.”

In Apple’s defence, while it gave users the ability to delete Siri recordings in iOS 13.2, the company did state that it planned to resume Siri monitoring after its release. That said, given the new accusations leveled by Le Bonniec, it is clear that further scrutiny is required. I have contacted Apple for a response to the new claims and will update this story when I get one.

In the meantime, I would advise all concerned iPhone and iPad owners to make the following changes: Settings > Privacy > Analytics & Improvement > Improve Siri & Dictation and check it is off, then Settings > Siri & Search > Siri History and tap ‘Delete Siri & Dictation History’. To enable further restrictions, such as revoking location tracking and third-party app integration with Siri, read Apple’s Ask Siri, Dictation & Privacy page.

This is a story which is set to run and run.