A Siri-ous Cause for Concern?

Author: Jonathan Zschau
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What is Apple’s Siri and should you be worried about your privacy?

Siri is a speech-recognition software application found on the iPhone 4S that acts as a “personal assistant.” As of right now, it’s only available in the iPhone 4S models, but it may eventually come to other Apple devices such as the iPhone 4 or iPad. Siri utilizes natural language processing to interpret questions and commands inputted through speech. There are two aspects of Siri that make it such a revolutionary technology when utilized on handheld devices such as the iPhone. First, its ability to interpret spoken natural language enables the user to give commands as if talking to a living person. This has potential to change the way in which we humans interface with computers.

Second, Siri is exceedingly observant and even learns, perhaps more observant than many of us have yet to fully appreciate. Siri knows what you ask, when you ask it, how you asked it, even where you were when you asked it; Siri won’t forget. As time goes on, Siri will grow increasingly knowledgeable about you, your associations, and your habits. The computing power behind Siri isn’t sequestered on your iPhone – it’s in the cloud and, therefore, everything it learns about you may be utilized in ways you never intended it to be. Think of Siri as omniscient personal assistant who serves each and every one of the millions of iPhone users at once. Although Siri has promised to keep your secrets – perhaps she’s even signed a confidentiality agreement – Siri may rely upon something she learned from you today to assist your neighbor tomorrow. Is this a bad thing? Well, maybe not, provided you’re aware Siri is doing this.

Siri’s ability to learn is perhaps one of the most exciting traits the technology has to offer, but it’s also potentially alarming if privacy is one of your top priorities. This is because of the way Siri relies on cloud computing to understand all of the data it learns about you, which includes information you directly input (such as a question or command) as well as other contextual data that you may not think you are sharing (such as your location or even your tone of voice). Siri processes and analyzes all of this information using an amalgam of applications, which include voice recognition and output software, natural language searching algorithms, and an iteration of Wolfram Alpha (a sophisticated answer engine) to generate a relevant and seemingly sentient response. Over time, Siri builds a contextual understanding of you and what it learns about you is ultimately stored somewhere.

At first glance this may not seem so different than other services we already use on a daily basis such as Google or Amazon. Google has been tracking our searching behavior for over a decade. Amazon has been learning about our shopping habits for just as long. The derivative use of this information is part of what has made these companies so profitable and certainly has fueled the explosion of the information age. What makes Siri so exceptional is that it exemplifies how integrated, unobtrusive, and seamless these technologies are becoming. We’re no longer in the age of desktop computers, which sat, stationary, in our offices or living rooms. Many of us have taken to these small, powerful, and elegantly designed technological marvels without a second thought as to what is actually going on behind the curtain. Perhaps this love affair with our portable devices such as the iPhone has distracted us from the progressive and unyielding erosion of our own privacy that has been unfolding over the past few decades.

Are Siri and similar technologies something we should be worried about? Is Siri big brother’s female counterpart? Should we all take up arms, retreat to our basements, and don tinfoil helmets? No, of course not. Siri is an exemplary technology, which demonstrates the direction the portable device revolution is headed. The common sharing and utilization of personal data will undoubtedly help the vast majority of us become more organized and productive. But the takeaway is that we all need to pause to appreciate the striking fact that your privacy isn’t what it used to be and, therefore, it is incumbent on you make an effort to understand how and what you share will be used by others. Only then can you make a deliberate decision as to how best utilize technologies such as Siri in a way that is consistent with your own needs and interests.

What information does Siri collect?

Although Apple recently pulled its About Siri and Privacy page, a cached version is still available. It’s likely that Apple will post and updated version in the days or weeks to come. The page provided some insight into what types of information Siri relied on in order to do her magic. The page indicated that Siri would collect two types of data: User Data and Voice Input Data, which Apple defined as:

User Data sent to Apple enables Siri to help you when you say things like “Call Dad” or “How do I get to work from here?” Voice Input Data is used by Apple to process your request, to help Siri better recognize what you say and may be used generally to improve the overall accuracy and performance of Siri and other Apple products and services. Voice Input Data is associated with your verbal commands and may include:

Audio recordings

Transcripts of what you said

Related diagnostic data, such as hardware and operating system specifications and performance statistics

Based on these somewhat broad definitions, it seems that Siri will be collecting a vast array of personal information from its users. In other words, Siri is going to collect much more than the mere content of your queries or commands. As a case in point, you may want Siri to know that your daughter’s first name is Natalie and that she has a particular cellular phone number, but you may not be entirely comfortable that Siri also knows that you call her when you pick her up from elementary school every weekday at the corner of School Street and Center Street at 3:15 PM. Depending on your own perspective on the importance of privacy, you may not be comfortable with Siri collecting and analyzing all of this information.

The point here is that you should be aware that this type of data is being collected and that you cannot be absolutely sure about how it’s being used. Have you heard about the husband that allegedly used his wife’s iPhone’s Find My Friends feature to discover that she had been having an affair? Would you take issue with someone having the ability to track your location without your knowledge? As these technologies and services become more ubiquitous in our everyday lives we should at least take some time to understand what data might be shared and what, if any, risks that may be created by the sharing of that data.

Will someone access your personal information?

If you use a portable device like an iPhone then you are already sharing a significant amount of information that you might consider to be private. While the vast majority of us have nothing to be concerned about, you should not only understand what types of data might be shared, but also who might access it.

Whatever you share is in the cloud, for anyone to read should they be resourceful enough to gain access to it. To use the analogy I used earlier, you can think of Siri as a personal assistant. Sure, she may have sworn on her mother’s grave that she would never tell anyone what you had disclosed to her behind closed doors, but if Siri does spill the beans then you’re out of luck. To Apple’s credit, there is a fairly robust privacy policy in place, Apple does have an unparalleled reputation for being a responsible corporation, and lastly, there isn’t anything in the world that would kill Siri and the iCloud quicker than a systemic security breach. Seemingly secure databases have been compromised in the past. Does anyone remember the monumental breach of the PlayStation Network earlier this year where tens of millions of users’ personal account data was stolen? It’s naive to assume that the data Apple, or any company for that matter, will never be hacked or otherwise obtained by some unknown third party.

What about government surveillance? The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) has been widely criticized for its apparent inability to safeguard personal information that is stored in the cloud. In its present form, the ECPA treats data stored in the cloud differently than data stored locally on your computer’s hard drive. For example, if you have an email account (e.g. Yahoo or Gmail) government officials may access that data without a warrant; all the authorities need to do is certify that the information to be collected will be relevant to a criminal investigation.

What does this mean for you? Be careful of what you share because other people could potentially access information that you may consider to be personal and private. The cloud really does present some interesting concerns regarding privacy and it’s worth your while to take a little bit of time to understand them.

Some perspective: Siri isn’t a new threat to your privacy.

Sharing our personal information isn’t anything new; we’ve been leaking our personal information in ways unanticipated and unknown to ourselves for decades. Every time you use a credit card, rewards card, run a Google search, or log onto a computer you are sharing something about yourself. Siri is one of the more sophisticated and easily accessible services of this sort that we have yet seen and that’s truly an exciting thing. But it’s also disconcerting to think about how much Siri will come to know about us. The fact that Siri is so convenient and so seamless makes it incredibly easy not to think about the risks associated with sharing too much information. Provided you’re conscious of the simple fact that whatever you share with Siri may not be forever held in secrecy then you have nothing to worry about. If you’re still especially concerned over the prospect of Siri getting to know you, you can always deactivate Siri.


Jonathan Zschau is the author of the new book Buying and Owning a Mac: Secrets Apple Doesn’t Want You to Know and contributing writer at CultofMac.com.

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