Apple contractors listened to 1,000 Siri recordings per shift, says former employee

Apple contractors listened to 1,000 Siri recordings per shift, says former employee

Contractors in Cork were expected to each listen to more than 1,000 recordings from Siri every shift - before Apple suspended the practice last month, according to an employee who had their contract abruptly terminated this week.

Fixed-term workers in Cork were hired to listen to and ‘grade’ Siri recordings, the Irish Examiner has established.

This follows revelations that human third-party contractors worldwide were carrying out the work on behalf of the tech-giant without Apple users’ knowledge.

Staff then transcribed and ‘graded’ these recordings based on a number of different factors.

These factors included if the activation of Siri was accidental or if the query was something the voice assistant could or couldn’t assist with.

Each Siri user’s details were kept anonymous, according to the employee. “Mostly it was users with Canadian, Australian or UK accents and there was a smaller team working on users with European languages.”

Siri recordings from a small number of Irish users were also listened to, the employee added.

“I understood the reasons why the company was doing it but I could see why people would feel it was a breach of privacy because they weren’t telling people.”

“I think the lack of consent was the issue.”

Staff employed as data analysts with Globetech, a Cork-firm headquartered at Cork Airport Business Park, were advised this week that their employment with the company has been terminated.

Apple suspended transcription and grading work on Siri recordings last month after details of the practice came to light; Documents seen by the Irish Examiner confirm that the company has now ended this type of work.

There are fears that more than 300 contractors in Cork working on transcription and grading projects for Apple were let go this week; However, Globetech and Apple have refused to comment on how many staff members are affected or on the nature of their work.

One employee who had their employment terminated following Apple’s decision told the Irish Examiner: “We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement when we started that meant we couldn’t talk about what we did in detail. We were not allowed to say we worked for Apple.”

Contractors working for Globetech regularly listened to more than 1,000 recordings from Siri each shift, according to the former employee: “They {the recordings} were about a few seconds long, occasionally we would hear personal data or snippets of conversations but mostly it would be Siri commands.”

Each Siri user’s details were kept anonymous, according to the employee.

Siri recordings from a small number of Irish users were also listened to, the employee added: “I understood the reasons why the company was doing it but I could see why people would feel it was a breach of privacy because they weren’t telling people. I think the lack of consent was the issue.

“My colleagues are mostly young people from Cork who now have no job,” the employee, who did not wish to be named, told the Irish Examiner.

“This also includes dozens of people who have come from Canada, Australia and mainland Europe.”

Correspondence sent to Globetech employees on Tuesday, seen by this newspaper, states that Apple informed the company last Saturday that it was ceasing all transcription and voice grading work: “Consequently, GlobeTech will no longer be engaged in the provision of these services to Apple.”

Employees were also advised that while the company is not contractually required to provide them with any notice of termination under the circumstances, it would be issuing a goodwill gesture. This goodwill gesture is understood to include one week’s pay and pay in lieu of any accrued but unused holiday entitlements.

Last month, a whistleblower told the Guardian that Apple contractors worldwide regularly heard confidential medical information, drug deals, sensitive business deals and recordings of people having sex picked up by Siri.

Following this, there was a clampdown at the Globetech office in Cork which saw employees forbidden to have their personal phones on them while at work.

Globetech has refused to comment on the number of its staff affected or on the nature of their work, directing the Irish Examiner instead to a statement issued earlier this week that references a “client project” finishing early.

“This is a difficult situation for everyone involved,” Globetech CEO Kevin Kelly said.

“The nature of our business means that the majority of our employee contracts are fixed-purpose and are linked to client requirements and project lifecycles.”

“We are committed to supporting our employees through potential redeployment opportunities, where possible.”

A spokesperson for Apple said: “We believe that everyone should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve — this includes our own employees and the suppliers we work with in Ireland and around the world. Apple is committed to customer privacy and made the decision to suspend Siri grading while we conduct a thorough review of our processes. We’re working closely with our partners as we do this to ensure the best possible outcome for our suppliers, their employees and our customers around the world.”

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