A former Apple contractor who worked for Siri’s “grading” project revealed that private conversations were overheard by employees working on improving Apple’s intelligent assistant, adding that the company and other tech giants continue to ignore and violate “fundamental rights” with their “massive collection of data.”
In a letter to European data protection regulation agencies, Thomas le Bonniec has revealed himself as the whistleblower who declared in July 2019 that Apple was mishandling consumer Siri queries. According to a new report from The Guardian, le Bonniec sent a letter to all European data protection regulators stating the Cupertino company is violating rights and continues massive data collection:
It is worrying that Apple (and undoubtedly not just Apple) keeps ignoring and violating fundamental rights and continues its massive collection of data.
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.
Le Bonniec, who was hired by one of Apple’s subcontractors in Ireland called Globe Technical Services, reportedly had to listen to recordings from users and correct transcription errors. Listening to hundreds of recordings from Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches, many of them were taken “outside of any activation of Siri” — meaning that users were not aware of the action.
“I listened to hundreds of recordings every day, from various Apple devices (eg. iPhones, Apple Watches, or iPads),” says le Bonniec. “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,” he said.
“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.”
As well as recording their owners, Apple’s devices also picked up speech involving relatives or children of the owners who divulged names, addresses, messages, searches, arguments, and conversations without their knowledge that it was being recorded.
In August 2019, as a response, the Cupertino company fired 300 workers with only one week’s notice and said it was reviewing its audio program. Le Bonniec said that “nothing has been done to verify if Apple actually stopped the program,” with sources reportedly telling him that Apple has not taken action.
“I believe that Apple’s statements merely aim to reassure their users and public authorities, and they do not care for their user’s consent, unless being forced to obtain it by law,” le Bonniec wrote.