Apple has heralded itself as a privacy leader in the tech sphere for years. Its “Sign In with Apple,” a new iOS 13 feature unveiled at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2019, is essentially a refurbished take on social media sign-ins with an Apple logo. The key differentiating factors, for Apple, are the sign-in’s privacy features — one of which allows users to opt out of sending their email addresses to third-party app developers. This means instead of sharing their go-to, personal email addresses, users can create an anonymous one.
Anonymity seems to be an underlying privacy theme with Apple, especially when it comes to Siri. Apple says all Siri requests are sent to its server with end-to-end encryption, and that this data cannot be attributed to any single user. According to Apple’s privacy page: “Siri requests are not associated with your Apple ID, but rather your device through a random identifier. This applies to Siri across all Apple devices, including HomePod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.”
Apple and user privacy
Apple can tout its privacy-protective leadership in the tech sphere because it operates on a completely different business model than Facebook, Google, and Amazon, et. al. “It’s certainly true that Apple’s business model is fundamentally different,” said Jeremy Gillula, tech projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
“Their business model is selling devices or selling things on the iTunes store — it isn’t advertising and monetizing information about you.”
Tech projects director, EFF
This doesn’t mean Apple is completely impervious to questionable data handling, because once data are given to third-party developers, they’re out of Apple’s hands. In fact, if you’ve ever “shared your contacts list” with an app, there is a chance that app’s developer had (or still has) access to not just phone numbers belonging to friends and family members, but also photos, addresses, and according to some experts, the Notes section. And it isn’t uncommon for the Notes section of a lot of Apple’s users to hold the Social Security Numbers of children or family members, along with other personally-identifiable information.
Control Siri settings on an iPhone
While Siri comes equipped on most all Apple devices, the HomePod trails far behind standalone voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo. However, it’s still the most widely-used phone-specific voice assistant, as data from Voicebot.ai show that 44% of smartphone voice assistant users opt for Siri compared to 30% for Google Assistant.
So, if you want to disable Siri or enable it for certain apps only, here’s how:
- Go to settings, then find “Siri & Search.”
- Manage settings under “ASK SIRI”
- Manage toggles under “ASK SIRI.”
- Control which apps you want Siri to communicate with.
Is Siri always listening?
The suspicions don’t just live in the word-of-mouth realm anymore. A quick Google search will show you many, many people have asked similar questions, including lawmakers. One study conducted on Android phones found that apps weren’t technically “listening,” but some were using screen recordings to extract user information without consent.
Apple remains adamant in its stance against unprompted recording. The company told Reuters last year that it had “removed” apps from the App Store over privacy violations but never admitted to whether it banned developers for not following privacy regulations.
An Apple spokesperson gave us a succinct “no” when we asked whether transcripts and snippets of conversations with Siri informed advertisements. When we asked whether Siri could “listen” or record without prior prompting, the spokesperson told us: “It doesn’t,” and referred us to Apple’s privacy page.
While it’s probably safe to assume Siri doesn’t care to hear your family gossip at the dinner table, Apple does give you some options to control Siri and restrict access. Apple even gives you a link to review your rights under Siri & Search (on your iPhone).
How long will Apple keep my voice recordings?
Apple says user voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that its recognition system can learn how to better understand the user’s voice. However, these recordings do not have “identifiers,” which keeps the recordings unlinked to a user’s Apple ID. Apple says “another copy” is saved after six months, and that a “sub-set of recordings, transcripts and associated data without identifiers may be used by Apple for ongoing improvement and assurance of Siri beyond two years.”
It’s still largely unknown what this “sub-set” looks like and for what tests your voice will be used. Referencing Amazon’s Alexa devices, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says: “When you, as a consumer, decide to put a live microphone connected to the internet in your home, you are exposing yourself to risk.” The risks, according to Stanley, boil down to three things: whether you trust the company, the company’s overall device maintenance and security, and the government. “The government can go to Amazon and ask for your information,” Stanley says.
Amazon says it will comply with law enforcement if the order is “legally valid and binding.” Similarly, Apple says it has a thorough vetting process in place in the event law enforcement requests data, where its team of legal experts will decide whether there’s a valid basis for the request.
The bottom line
In our assessment, as long as you keep your devices up to date and implement extra security measures, like a strong password and two-factor authentication, you’re generally safe from hackers. In terms of those seemingly invasive ad-targeting tactics, Apple is the least of your concerns (even though this is a core business model for many App Store apps). Chris Carney, CEO and co-founder of Abode, also says Apple takes a strong stance on privacy after working with the company on a future HomeKit integration. “Apple’s probably the best, because they don’t want to collect — they try not to collect anything on people,” Carney says.