Apple and Google Suspend Listening to Audio Recorded by Virtual Assistants

August 2, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

Both Apple and Google have suspended the controversial practice of having human workers listen to audio captured by Siri and Google’s virtual assistant.

Apple’s decision comes one week after the Guardian revealed that the company had hired contractors to listen to and analyze audio picked up by its virtual assistant. While it did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what it calls “grading,” or letting human workers review user audio, Apple addressed the matter in a recent statement to TechCrunch. “While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally,” Apple said. Apple added that it would eventually let Siri users opt into or out of letting humans review any audio that Siri picks up.

Google is also reversing course by suspending its review program globally, according to a statement to Fortune. The decision comes after German regulators said that the company would pause using human workers to analyze audio for at least three months in Europe.

The public first learned that Google contractors listened to user audio after a report by Vrt Nws last month. In some cases the audio was recorded without user having said the phrase that is supposed to trigger, or wake, Google Assistant, “Okay, Google.” While the microphones on many virtual assistants are always listening, Google says that it only records and stores audio after users mention the wake word.

Sources told Vrt News they were able to listen to the audio that Google saved and were able to recognize voices and listen in on sensitive information. Similarly, in the Guardian’s report, an unidentified Apple contractor noted that workers who listened to Siri regularly heard drug deals, private medical information, and sexual encounters. “There’s not much vetting of who works there, and the amount of data that we’re free to look through seems quite broad,” the Apple contractor said about the program.

Privacy advocates had criticized the practice of having human workers review audio from virtual assistants, which are available through mobile devices and in Internet-connected speakers. Critics had immediately called on the major tech companies to stop the practice.

One company that hasn’t commented about its audio review policies is Amazon, which has a team dedicated to the job, Bloomberg reported in April. An Amazon job posting, for example, mentioned duties including “labeling, curating and analyzing vast quantities of speech” daily, according to Bloomberg. Like Google’s virtual assistant, Amazon’s Alexa occasionally recorded and stored audio even without a user mention the wake word.

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