Every tech company with voice-activated computer assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant promises to protect privacy. But it turns out that Apple has been allowing its Siri voice assistant to transmit highly personal recordings of people without their knowledge as part of a project that transcribed portions of Siri recordings to improve the feature’s voice recognition. Apple have since suspended the project and apologized.
Now a whistleblower, Thomas Le Bonniec, has revealed that Apple has been secretly listening to the private conversations of people all over Europe, talking about their cancer, dead relatives, religion, sexuality, pornography, relationships and drug use, among other topics, “basically wiretapping entire populations.
So far, all the EU has done is to say it is talking with Apple. In May, an Irish regulatory authority told Politico. It is “still engaged with Apple on a number of fronts, [and] still getting answers to questions”, Meanwhile, there is no evidence the US has done anything to determine the extent of Apple’s secret Siri surveillance program. Laws protecting private communications include not only wiretapping at the federal level but state laws protecting against invasion of privacy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could determine that it’s an unfair trade practice to tell a consumer you’ve protected their information and then to secretly listen in, even if it’s only snippets or anonymized. So it’s critical to investigate whether Apple’s EU-based privacy abuses also took place in the US.
What’s clearly needed now is a comprehensive investigation in the US, as well as in Europe, into what Apple did with its Siri monitoring program, and whether the other big tech companies have been responsible for similar abuses. The FTC is working on antitrust inquiries of Facebook and Amazon. The Department of Justice is allegedly investigating (or considering investigating) Google, Facebook and Apple. And in a potential breakthrough, the CEOs of the big four tech giants – Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – have recently testified before the House judiciary committee about their alleged anti-competitive conduct.
Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa has also monitored consumers without their knowledge. Those investigating these companies on antitrust issues should add these reported privacy violations to the scope of their investigations into each of the tech giants.
If Apple did engage in a “massive violation of the privacy of millions of citizens”, the implications for liability to class-action suits and regulatory fines could be substantial. When a publicly traded company admits it hasn’t lived up to its promises, the company’s audit committee can – and should – order a comprehensive, impartial investigation by an outside law firm to find out what happened, and to report to its board of directors – and ultimately, to the public – as a way of coming clean with their customers.
(Ted Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor in the US justice department.)
My comment: The Russians, and probably the Chinese, are also spying on us.