Usually when the government and Apple butt heads over a technology topic, it has to do with encryption, and specifically the lack of a built-in backdoor for lawmakers to bust through when investigating crimes. That is an ongoing topic, though it is not the only one. Concerned over the growing use of digital assistants like Siri, US lawmakers asked Apple if its devices invade user privacy by recording conversations.
The question was posed to both Apple and Google in a letter by representatives Greg Walden, Marsha Blackburn, Gregg Harper, and Robert Latta. In the letter, the representatives pointed to reports that smartphones could “collect ‘non-triggered’ audio data from users’ conversations” while listening for a wake-phrase, such as ‘Hey Siri’ or ‘Okay Google’.
Apple responded to the letter saying its iPhone devices do not record audio while listening for wake commands. In addition, Apple said Siri does not share spoken words. The company also pointed out that users must approve microphone access, and that apps have to clearly indicate when they are listening to audio.
The concern on the part of US lawmakers is not without merit, though it seems Congress is having trouble picking a side. Back in 2016, police were investigating a murder in Bentonville, Arkansas, when they noticed the suspect owned an Amazon Echo smart speaker. They asked Amazon to share the speaker’s voice data to see if the speaker may have recorded any incriminating conversations. Amazon initially refused, saying such data is protected under the First Amendment, but later relented when the suspect granted permission.
In that case, law enforcement officials were not concerned with user privacy. More recently, however, there has been a big hubbub over privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked Facebook. Members of Congress have been grilling companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google over their data retention and privacy policies, and how that data is shared with third-party developers.
For users, the best you can do is pay attention to which apps you install and what permissions you are granting.