Apple and Google suspend some of their eavesdropping

Two of the world’s leading voice assistant makers pulled the plug on their respective analytics programmes of Siri and Google Assistant after private information including confidential conversations were leaked.

Apple decided to suspend its outsourced programme to “grade” Siri, by which it assesses the voice assistant’s response accuracy, following reports that private conversations are being listened to by its contractors without the users’ explicit consent. The company committed to add an opt-out option for users in a future update of Siri. It also promised that the programme would not be restarted until it had completed a thorough review.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy. While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally,” the Cupertino-based iPhone maker told The Guardian. “Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

This is in response to the leak that was first reported by the British broadsheet, which received tipoff from whistle-blowers. The paper learned that contractors regularly hear private conversations ranging from dialogues between patients and doctors, to communications between drug dealers and buyers, with everything is between. These could include cases when Siri has triggered unintentionally without the users’ awareness.

The biggest problem with Apple’s analytics programme is that it does not explicitly disclose to consumers that some of Siri recordings are shared with contractors in different parts of the world who will listen to the anonymous content, as a means to improve Siri’s accuracy. By not being upfront, Apple does not provide users with the option to opt out either.

Shortly before Apple’s decision to call a halt to Siri grading, Google also pulled the plug on its own human analysis of Google Assistant in the European Union, reported Associated Press. The company promised to the office of Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s commissioner for data protection and Germany’s lead regulator of Google on privacy issues, that the suspension will last at least three months.

The decision was made after Google admitted that one of the language reviewers it partners with, who are supposed to assess Google Assistant’s response accuracy, “has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.” Over 1,000 private conversations in Flemish, some of which included private data, were sent to the Belgian news outlet VRT. Though the messages are supposed to be anonymised, staff at VRT were able to identify the users through private information like home addresses.

At that time Google promised “we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”

These are not the first cases where private conversations are leaked over voice assistants. Last year an Alexa-equipped Amazon Echo recorded a conversation between a couple in Portland, Oregan, and sent it to a friend, which was another recent case that rang the alarm bell of private data security.

It should not surprise those in the tech world that AI powered natural language processing software still has a long way to go before it can get all the intricacies right. Before that it needs human input to continuously improve the accuracy. The problems that bedevilled Google and Apple today, and Amazon in the past, and Microsoft (Cortana) which fortunately has not suffered high profile embarrassment recently, are down to the lack of stringent oversight of the role humans play, the lack of clear communication to consumers that their interactions with voice assistants may be used for data analysis purposes, and the failure to give consumers the choice to opt out.

There is also the controversy of data sovereignty, as well as the question of whether private data should be allowed to be stored in the cloud or should be kept on device. Apple’s leak case is not geographically specified, but Google’s case is a clear violation of GDPR.  According to the AP report, Germany has already started proceedings against Google.

Apple hires Google AI guru to smarten up simple Siri

Apple might be one of the most powerful companies on the planet, with a loyal army of fans lauding the technological superiority of the iPhone, but Siri is as useful as an iron in a washing machine. The latest hire might help.

According to the New York Times, who managed to get hold of a memo from Apple CEO Tim Cook, the iLeader has hired John Giannandrea, a man who led the internet giant’s search and artificial intelligence, to lead the machine learning and AI strategy. Giannandrea will now become one of 16 executives who will report directly into the CEO, and will be responsible for ensuring Apple doesn’t remain way at the back of the AI pack.

“Our technology must be infused with the values we all hold dear,” said Cook in the memo. “John [Giannandrea] shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.”

Siri might be a simpleton, but this is a major hire for Apple. Software and services is the way forward, but for the profits to be realised in this world intelligence has to be embedded in building blocks of the products on offer. While handset manufacturers are all looking into new areas such as virtual assistants or personalisation for content, Apple’s efforts have not been great.

In terms of Giannandrea’s experience, prior to joining Google Giannandrea was the CTO of Metaweb Technologies, a San Francisco-based company that developed Freebase and was acquired by Google in 2010. At Google, Giannandrea was central to the AI efforts which now drive all aspects of the business. The Google virtual assistant looks like it could evolve the search advertising business model, moving the emphasis from type/touch to voice, while personalised advertising is making steps forward and intelligent mapping solutions are becoming increasingly attractive. A broad brush approach could also be expected at Apple.

Apple has been making the right noises about its AI development, with a couple of decent hires and acquisitions in recent months, indicating the team recognise the problems. Apple has long survived on hardware expertise and an incredible brand, but this will not work in the digital economy. The iCultists might have been able to put up to a closed ecosystem to date, but whether the same individuals would be able to endure sloppy technology, clunky intelligence and irritating interfaces is less likely.

While Giannandrea might be an excellent hire, there might only be so much he can do to catch with the leaders in the world. Google has a search engine which collects data to train its AI software, while Amazon has a content platform, the world’s largest eCommerce site and a popular smart speaker which is now collecting data directly from the consumer, just like Google. The other notable AI player is IBM, a company which has developed a huge number of partnerships to get hold of data. Giannandrea might be an AI hotshot, but Apple has a lot of work to do.