Apple, Google and Amazon have all rowed back on letting third-party contractors, access personal conversations recorded by their digital home assistants, Siri, Google Home and Alexa. The move follows growing concerns about privacy intrusions and regulatory pressure.

All three companies contract thousands of people around the world to help improve their voice-operated digital assistants by listening to recordings, transcribing what is said, and providing feedback to improve speech recognition.

On the surface this appears reasonable but it also oversteps the privacy mark.  An Apple insider, speaking about Siri, said there have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data.

When this came to light more revelations poured forth:
 
  • Two Amazon workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but the two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.
 
Following global media coverage and hard-hitting regulators leaning on them and no doubt not wanting to alienate existing customers and scare off new ones, the following steps have been taken:
 
  • Apple has completely paused letting contractors listen to Siri voice recordings worldwide and says it will offer customers an opt-out at some later stage.
 
  • Following an investigation by German regulators, Google has temporarily stopped its third-party contractors in Europe from listening into Google Home conversations.
 
  • Amazon has introduced an opt-out feature for Alexa users if they don't want Amazon to listen in on their conversations.

The digital home assistants are meant to be activated when the user gives a command. For instance, the command ‘Hey Siri’ is meant to activate Siri. But saying a word like “Syria” or even the sound of a zip pulled up or down can activate Siri. The same applies to Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa.

As a result a lot of personal interactions are recorded unintentionally such as bedroom conversations, conversations between parents and their children, big arguments and professional phone calls containing lots of private information.

Facebook joins in

Facebook also recently admitted that human contractors listened to recordings of Facebook Messenger users without their knowledge. The contractors were tasked with re-transcribing the conversations in order to gauge the accuracy of the automatic transcription tool. Facebook now says listening in to conversations have been paused.

A much bigger picture

The striking thing about this backtracking is that each of these tech giants went ahead and used personal voice recordings without even giving a nod to user permission.

This is a widespread practise throughout the technology industry, whether its website tracking, geo-location tracking or trading user data. In short, user privacy is not factored into technology unless a company is about to be hit with a big regulatory bat. Note, both Google and Apple have only temporarily suspended third-party access to private conversations.

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