Hey Siri, How Does One Regain Trust?

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

John Gruber on the fact Apple has human listening to a random assortment of Siri requests:

Apple literally advertises on the basis of its user-focused privacy policies — but apparently the billboards should have read “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone, except for some of your Siri recordings, which we listen to.”

This story broke while I was on my semi-summer hiatus, so I haven’t really weighed in on this yet, and frankly I think it would be a disservice if I didn’t. Not because my voice needs to be heard or anything, but because you can damn well be sure that I’d bring it up if Amazon or Google were doing it1. So what do I think?

I think that John is absolutely right here. Apple sells themselves on being the company that cares about privacy and they betray that promise by listening to my Siri conversations and not telling me clearly, nor by letting me opt out if I don’t want to be included in making Siri better. Apple has of course said they have discontinued this practice, but trust is built around actions, not responses to bad behavior when you get caught.

I completely understand that Apple needs to have humans involved in the voice recognition process, as do all other companies in this space. Computers can do amazing things, but it often takes a human being to figure out what went wrong when it does.

But just because this is an essential step doesn’t mean I think Apple did it the right way. As many others have suggested, if Apple gave me a button to manually send them a Siri interaction that didn’t go how I wanted, I’d do it basically every time. I want Siri to get better and am happy to opt into sending them data when it could help them make a better product. Hell, I might even agree if they asked when going through the new phone setup steps whether I’d like to share a small percentage of conversations with them. But not making it clear that this would happen is not the right move.

Now have I turned off Siri on my Apple devices and punted my HomePods to the curb? No, partially because punting a HomePod would probably break my foot, but also because while I’m not happy about this, I’m not upset enough to quit Siri. I don’t want humans listening to random conversations I’m having in my home, especially on accidental Siri triggers, but I’m fairly confident that Apple is not using this data to build a profile for me and market specific products to me like Amazon, and to a lesser extent Google, are. I take Apple at their word that this program was to make Siri better at understanding my words and returning useful results.

But again, I trust Apple because of their history of building up that trust. This incident is a bump in the road, and if there are more stories about Apple mistreating user data in the near future I’ll be more inclined to get off this road. The problem of course being that Google is really the only other road and I don’t love Android, nor do I think they’re any better on the privacy front. Microsoft is actually pretty good when it comes to privacy, but I’m not going to start using Windows and Cortana unless we are indeed near the end times.

  1. Spoiler alert, they are.