An ex-contractor for Apple who was part of a whistleblower campaign that revealed the company was listening in to its users’ Siri recordings has written a letter protesting the lack of action to remedy the situation with privacy issues, reports The Guardian.
In the letter, sent to all European data protection regulators, Thomas le Bonniec, 25, voices his concerns that Apple “continues to ignore and violate fundamental rights”, persisting in massive harvesting 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,” writes Le Bonniec.
The former subcontractor worked in Apple’s Cork offices, transcribing user requests in English and French, until he quit in summer 2019. At the time le Bonniec cited ethical considerations as the reason for his decision.
“They do operate on a moral and legal grey area… and they have been doing this for years on a massive scale. They should be called out in every possible way,” Le Bonniec was quoted as saying by The Guardian in 2019.
After a spate of disclosures which shed light on Apple’s “grading” program, which involved thousands of contractors listening in to recordings made, whether accidentally or deliberately, using Siri, ostensibly to improve the virtual assistant tech, Apple had apologized, vowing to introduce far-reaching changes, and insisting it would only grade recordings from users who had opted-in to the procedure.
“We realise we have not been fully living up to our high ideals,” the company said in a statement in August.
In late October the company had released a software update to allow Siri users to opt-in or out of their voice recordings being used to enhance the “dictation” of the virtual assistant, and to choose to delete audio data stored by Apple.
However, according to Le Bonniec, the company fell dismally short of accepting the responsibility for its years of accumulating massive private data without the users’ consent.
“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,” said the former Apple contractor.
Le Bonniec went on to deplore the fact that the recordings stored by the company were not restricted to 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,” says Le Bonniec.
Calling out the company for its touted ‘privacy-driven’ policies, Le Bonniec urges further investigation of these practices 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,” concludes the former Apple contractor.
In August 2019 after a succession of revelations that shed light on Apple’s “grading” programme, revealing that thousands of contractors were hired to listen in to Siri audio recordings containing private information of the company’s customers, as part of a project to enhance the technical efficacy of the virtual assistant, the company announced impending software changes, noting that “privacy is a fundamental human right.”
Apple had also vowed they would be abandoning retention of Siri audio and develop an opt-in process for those users who had no qualms about their recordings being used to boost the virtual assistant’s technical performance.
“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 tech giant had said.