Survey: Should Apple, Amazon, and Google Let Humans Listen to Your Voice Queries?

Over the weekend, The Guardian reported that Apple employs external contractors to listen to Siri requests in an attempt to improve the service. The news means all major voice-activated digital assistant services (Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant) have humans listening to your queries. Should these companies be doing such a thing?

Apple, which loudly touts its position on privacy, says “a small portion of Siri requests are analyzed to improve Siri and dictation. User requests are not associated with the user’s Apple ID. Siri responses are analyzed in secure facilities and all reviewers are under the obligation to adhere to Apple’s strict confidentiality requirements.” The data sent to outside analysts, which the company claims is less than one percent of all Siri queries, “is used to help Siri and dictation understand you better and recognize what you say.”

But The Guardian (or rather, the whistleblower who contacted the publication) says otherwise:

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.

This situation isn’t unique. In April, Amazon was found to have a global team of humans listening to Alexa queries. Earlier this month, reports suggested Google is doing the same.

Each company’s reasoning for having people listen to your queries boils down to the same argument: it’s a method to improve the service. Unfortunately, users were never directly notified this was happening, and there’s no opt-out. The fear is this level of insight into your life could elicit some sort of creepy stalking behavior; if personal info really is attached to reviewable snippets of audio, it’s entirely possible someone would start snooping into a person’s background online. It’s not unfounded, either. Remember Uber’s ‘God View,’ which Uber staffers used to stalk exes?

What the companies fail to address is having people listen to queries is a method to improve the service faster, which speaks to the often irrational competition tech companies have with one another.

But we want to hear from you: should any company have humans listening to (often very personal) voice queries? Let us know in the survey above! We’ll be publishing our findings next week.

2 Responses to “Survey: Should Apple, Amazon, and Google Let Humans Listen to Your Voice Queries?”

  1. Between expenses and privacy concerns, and being ripped-off by past cell phone service providers, I stopped even having a cell-phone before the smart-phones came into being. Recently, I have been considering an iPhone from Apple. This because I didn’t like the gaping privacy holes in the competition. As a developer, I don’t write apps for any phones whatsoever, so that isn’t a factor. Furthermore, I am amazed at how well my sister gets around thanks to Siri. I was really distressed by the reporting of outside contractors being employed to listen to Siri, and I’ve put my purchasing plans on hold as a result.

    I think that most people are not going to want a random recording taken out of context to surface as evidence in a courtroom, and that’s one of the primary dangers with this.

    As for Siri and similar services, I think that there needs to be a privacy-padlock put on Siri Icons, to show a private, non-contractor-listening-in enhancement, along with a button to delete Siri dialogs asdesired, regardless of privacy levels.

  2. The problem is not so much with the listening but moreso when it listens, which is always.
    If you could say to only listen/capture when I call you, and stop after the answer, that might be okay. However, like anyone else in the room, you overhear many things even when you’re not trying to listen. And more if you try to listen. Maybe the devices need a separate device that will ONLY listen for its name, then turn on the assistant to handle the conversation, like calling someone in to take notes.
    And certainly, there should be an opt out, understanding that your responses may not be as good as you’d like.