The recordings are reportedly not associated with an Apple ID, but can be several seconds long, include content of a personal nature, and are paired with other revealing data, like location, app data, and contact details.
Like the other companies, Apple says this data is collected and analyzed by humans to improve its services, and that all analysis is done in a secure facility by workers bound by confidentiality agreements. And like the other companies, Apple failed to say that it does this until forced to.
Apple told The Guardian that less than one percent of daily queries are sent, cold comfort when the company is also constantly talking up the volume of Siri queries. Hundreds of millions of devices use the feature regularly, making a conservative estimate of a fraction of one percent rise quickly into the hundreds of thousands.
This “small portion” of Siri requests is apparently randomly chosen, and as the whistleblower notes, it includes “countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on.”
Some of these activations of Siri will have been accidental, which is one of the things listeners are trained to listen for and identify. Accidentally recorded queries can be many seconds long and contain a great deal of personal information, even if it is not directly tied to a digital identity.
We may collect and store details of how you use our services, including search queries. This information may be used to improve the relevancy of results provided by our services. Except in limited instances to ensure quality of our services over the Internet, such information will not be associated with your IP address.
It’s conceivable that the phrase “search queries” is inclusive of recordings of search queries. And it does say that it shares some data with third parties. But nowhere is it stated simply that questions you ask your phone may be recorded and shared with a stranger. Nor is there any way for users to opt out of this practice.
Given Apple’s focus on privacy and transparency, this seems like a major, and obviously a deliberate, oversight. I’ve contacted Apple for more details and will update this post when I hear back.