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Siri and the looming privacy debate


Update: Apple has released a more complete Siri Privacy Policy. You can learn more about this updated policy here.

Apple's latest phone, the iPhone 4S boasts an innovative and savvy personal assistant software service known as Siri.  Siri allows users to speak to the phone as if it were a person, and the phone replies in kind.  This allows for an incredible array of interesting utilities, such as finding out the weather, sending and receiving text messages, scheduling appointments, getting directions, etc.  This is a very cool technology.

Siri will spark an incredible privacy debate.  

You can view Siri's privacy policy in context here.  For the purposes of this blog, here is Siri's privacy policy:

When you use Siri, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple to process your requests. Your device will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (e.g., “my dad”) of your address book contacts; and song names in your collection (collectively, your “User Data”). All of this data is used to help Siri understand you better and recognize what you say. It is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services. By using Siri, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri and other Apple products and services. If you have Location Services turned on, the location of your iOS Device at the time you make a request will also be sent to Apple to help Siri improve the accuracy of its response to your location-based requests.  You may disable the location-based functionality of Siri by going to the Location Services setting on your iOS Device and turning off the individual location setting for Siri. You can also turn off Siri altogether at any time. To do so, open Settings, tap General, tap Siri, and slide the Siri switch to “off”. You may also restrict the ability to use Siri under the Restrictions Setting.

Siri is a learning software.  Over time, it will learn more about you and improve.  While it is not clear how much of the Siri solution is powered by the cloud and how much resides natively on the device, everything that I have read and heard suggests that there is a good deal of processing taking place in the cloud.  In other words, Apple's cloud services are in some way processing your appointments, text messages, location, commands etc.  This theoretically means that Apple "knows" as much about you as your personal assistant.  Scared yet?  It gets better.

Siri is only going to grow increasingly competent.  Over time, I would expect Apple to roll out a Siri-based API for thid party developers.  Software like Siri will be sure to pop up in dashboards in cars and a host of web connected appliances.  If the iPhone revolutionized the natural user interface, Siri is taking this to the next step with nearly human interactions.  We are going to tell Siri everything.  And if I were Apple, I would be listening.

I am sure that Apple will anonymize user data.  I am also confident that Apple will build product improvements through human and machine listening and analyzing of the anonymized data sent to Siri (they pretty much tell us this in their EULA).  I am also sure that the 10PM local news is going to love the conspiracy theory side of this story.  "Does Apple know too much?  Could someone be listening to your phone?  Find out tonight on the 10 o'clock news."

I for one, don't care what Apple or Google knows about me, so long as I (a) know what they know about me, and (b) I have the ability to opt out.  But the media circus is going to be a three tent affair.

Here's how this is going to shake out:

  1. Sometime over the next two months a blogger is going to cry foul over Siri's cloud processing and learning.  That blogger may be me, but I'm not convinced that I have that clout.  And I'm not that senationalist.
  2. This will make the media.  
  3. Everyone will yell about transparency.  A number of ambitious politicians will hop on the bandwagon.  
  4. Apple will evade the issue in public while educating those who will educate others (similar to the early iPhone 4 antenna gate strategy).  
  5. Apple will roll out an app update that allows the user to opt out of the tracking and learning.  

Apple, thanks for making us smarter and more capable.  Welcome to Google's world.  Welcome to the privacy wars.