From Dublin to Hamburg: Siri, Alexa and Google assistants are probed

Regulators in the US and Europe are examining whether Google, Apple, and Amazon are violating privacy by employing human reviewers to listen to voice commands recorded by digital assistants.

From Dublin to Hamburg: Siri, Alexa and Google assistants are probed

By Natalia Drozdiak and Giles Turner

Regulators in the US and Europe are examining whether Google, Apple, and Amazon are violating privacy by employing human reviewers to listen to voice commands recorded by digital assistants.

Apple and Google, which is currently being investigated by Hamburg’s data protection authority, have both suspended their programmes; Amazon late last week announced changes to its terms that let users opt out of human review of their recordings. And regulators from Ireland and the UK are now also looking into whether the tech giants have infringed European privacy regulations.

“We are aware of privacy concerns relating to voice assistant programs and will be assessing the available information,” said a spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data protection regulator.

She added the ICO would discuss the matter with the board of European data protection authorities “in order to ascertain the full facts and any possible risks to the rights of UK residents”.

Amazon has a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software. Their tasks include listening to and transcribing voice recordings. Some of the workers reviewing customer recordings had access to certain personal data, including users’ first names and their location, it was reported in March.

At the time, Amazon said only a small sample of recordings were manually reviewed. And Bloomberg reported that a similar human review is used for Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri. Recent news reports elaborated on the extent of those companies’ review.

The reports have sparked concern among privacy advocates that the practice could violate users’ rights, particularly in cases where devices begin recording unintentionally or without the user’s knowledge.

Here, the Data Protection Commission which oversees Apple and Google in Europe because their European head offices are based in Ireland said it is in talks with both companies over obtaining further details about voice assistants.

“We will be making our assessments and conclusions,” said a spokeswoman.

We note that both companies have ceased this processing, Google from mid-July and Apple in recent days.

A spokesman for Luxembourg’s data protection commission, Amazon’s main privacy regulator in Europe, confirmed it had been in touch with Amazon on the issue but declined to comment further, saying the talks were confidential.

Apple this week pointed to previous statements, in which it said it is suspending Siri grading globally as it conducts a thorough review.

It has also said that, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.

In a statement last week, Amazon said “we take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures”, adding it would update information it provides to customers to make practices more clear. Google said it is “assessing how we conduct audio reviews and help our users understand how data is used”.

In the US, Congressman Seth Moulton in late July introduced a bill called the Automatic Listening Exploitation Act that would grant the Federal Trade Commission the power to issue fines of up to $40,000 (€35,815) per infraction when digital assistants and smart doorbells violate terms of agreements.

The proposed legislation aims to provide consumers recourse when assistants and doorbells record conversations where users haven’t uttered the device’s wake word or activated the device.

In Europe, data protection authorities already have strict fining powers. They were strengthened under the EU’s strict new General Data Protection Regulation that entered into force last May, and they can levy fines as high as 4% of a company’s annual revenue.

- Bloomberg

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