Apple apologises, and makes changes to Siri's privacy policy

In a statement, the tech giant announced new plans aimed at improving its digital-assistant services.

    California-based technology giant Apple announced it is changing the way it reviews audio recordings made through its digital assistant, known as Siri [Robert Galbraith/Reuters]
    California-based technology giant Apple announced it is changing the way it reviews audio recordings made through its digital assistant, known as Siri [Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

    Multinational technology company Apple Inc on Wednesday said it would quit its default practice of retaining audio recordings of the requests users make to its Siri personal assistant. The company also pledged to limit human review of what audio it does collect so only its employees - and not its contractors - can hear these recordings.

    The changes come after Apple earlier this month put a hold on a programme called Siri grading, in which humans listened to audio recordings of users to determine whether the assistant had responded appropriately to requests to do things such as reading unread messages or checking upcoming calendar appointments.

    The company put the programme on standby after the Guardian newspaper reported that contractors working on Apple's behalf regularly heard confidential information, drug deals and couples having sex.

    The company issued a written statement in which it not only issued an apology, but also explained how it will change its digital assistant, Siri, and related privacy policy.

    "As a result of our review, we realize we haven't been fully living up to our high ideals, and for that we apologize," the company's statement read.

    Increased public and political scrutiny of data-privacy practices have forced greater transparency from Silicon Valley companies. Alphabet Inc's Google, for instance, paused reviews of audio recordings from its Google assistant service for all purposes in all languages after a leak of Dutch audio data.

    Apple has promoted its privacy practices to distance itself from its rivals, and has taken steps since Siri's introduction in 2011 to limit data collection. Audio recordings are deleted after a set period of time; users are identified by a random number; and data such as a user's unread messages or calendar appointments are not sent to Apple's servers.

    But Apple tapped humans to improve its Siri service - a process that can cut speech-recognition error rates in half, the company's researchers have told Reuters in the past. Apple says that the number of audio recordings reviewed was small - less than 0.2 percent of total requests - but that users had no way to opt out of having audio retained and reviewed by humans except to turn Siri off altogether.

    Apple on Wednesday said that it will stop retaining audio for human review and instead let users opt in to having their audio reviewed if they so choose. The company said it will still use computer-generated transcripts to improve Siri.

    Apple also said that it will only let its employees review the audio, and that it "will work to delete any recording which is determined to be an inadvertent trigger of Siri".

    Apple said the pause on the programme will remain in place until the changes are carried out, but did not give a date for this.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency