Apple, Google pause voice recording transcription programmes

August 2, 2019 | 11:41

Tags: #data-breach #google-assistant #leak #security #siri #virtual-assistant

Companies: #apple #google

Apple and Google have both announced that they are suspending programmes where external contractors listen to recordings made by their respective voice-activated assistant applications, following privacy concerns.

Apple's Siri - originally an external project for iOS with plans to port to Android and BlackBerry before its parent company was acquired by Apple and the software turned into an exclusive feature of the then-new iPhone 4S - kicked off interest in voice-activated virtual assistant software. In its modern incarnation, Siri constantly listens for a wake phrase and then streams the resulting audio to a remote server where it is transcribed to text, analysed for actionable requests, and processed. Google soon followed with its Hey, Google platform - now known as the Google Assistant - while Amazon has Alexa and Microsoft has Cortana, the latter named for the rampant artificial intelligence at the heart of the Halo series of first-person shooters.

Recent leaks of recordings, however, have brought all virtual assistant platforms under increased scrutiny - especially when said recordings include things that the assistant was never meant to hear, the wake phrase having been triggered accidentally. A particular concern is companies' use of external contractors to manually transcribe recordings and compare them to the automated transcriptions as a quality control check - something that users aren't explicitly told happens when signing up to use the services.

Following a report by The Guardian, Apple has announced that it is suspending its manual transcription programme. 'We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,' the company claims in a statement to press. 'While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally. Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.'

Google, meanwhile, is following suit - but only for users in Europe. 'Shortly after we learned about the leaking of confidential Dutch audio data,' the company told Reuters, 'we paused language reviews of the Assistant to investigate.' Unlike Apple, Google's suspension is only for audio data gathered in the European Union, and comes with a predicted three-month time limit and no promise that the feature will be made opt-out as Apple is planning.

Microsoft and Amazon, meanwhile, have not commented on their own use of manual transcription as a quality control measure.

UPDATE 20190805:

Amazon has updated its Alexa platform to include the ability to opt out of manual transcription, as part of the Alexa Privacy Settings functionality. Manual transcription remains the default on the platform unless specifically changed, however, with Amazon claiming that only a tiny fraction  of recordings are ever reviewed by humans.

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