Siri—and the Humans Behind Her—Might Have Heard Some of Your Most Private Moments

SIphotography/iStock via Getty Images
SIphotography/iStock via Getty Images

An Apple contractor has come forward with alarming—yet not altogether surprising—information about just how much of your life Siri and her human referees may have heard. The anonymous whistleblower told The Guardian that “there have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters, and so on.”

Here’s how that happens. Apple sends a small percentage (less than 1 percent) of Siri activations to outside contractors, who then listen to the recordings to discern whether the activation was on purpose or by accident, whether or not the request was something Siri could fulfill, and whether or not the virtual assistant responded appropriately. This “grading” process is designed to help Apple developers with quality control and improvement, but according to The Guardian, the tech titan doesn’t actually disclose to consumers that humans might be listening to their interactions. Even some of Siri’s banter muddles the truth; for example, the system responds to the question “Are you always listening?” with “I only listen when you’re talking to me.”

An Apple representative told The Guardian that the recordings aren’t grouped with other recordings from the same user, and they’re not linked to your Apple ID. But The Guardian’s source explained that recordings can include addresses, names, and other personal information that would make it relatively simple to track down a user if you wanted to. And, since Apple uses independent contractors for this work, “there’s not much vetting of who works there, and the amount of data that we’re free to look through is quite broad … It’s not like people are being encouraged to have consideration for people’s privacy.”

The reason so many sensitive conversations are captured by Siri in the first place is because the virtual assistant is easily activated by accident. It starts recording whenever it registers the phrase “Hey Siri,” or anything that remotely resembles it, sometimes even just the sound of a zipper. The contractor emphasized that the Apple Watch and HomePod smart speaker are most often the culprits of accidental recordings.

The good news is that Apple now seems to understand how much this news has probably freaked you out. The Guardian reported today that Apple has suspended its grading program indefinitely while it conducts a review. “We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” the statement said. “As part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

[h/t The Guardian]

China's Coronavirus App Is Alerting Citizens When They're in Danger of Being Infected

Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Kevin Frayer, Getty Images

Questions continue to linger around the new coronavirus, currently plaguing parts of China and other countries. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus, the Chinese government recently introduced a smartphone app that claims to alert users when someone suspected of having the virus has been nearby.

According to the BBC, the app, dubbed the “close contact detector," works by having phone users register their name and government ID number. Once they activate the service, they’ll be notified if they’ve been in a place where someone diagnosed with coronavirus has been. Patient A, for example, might have reported being on a train, in a classroom, or in an office space that the app user also occupied. The user would get an alert along with a notice to stay home in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Whether a user has been in close contact is determined by their physical proximity to someone suspected of having the virus. Airplane passengers in the three rows surrounding someone suspected of being infected would be considered in close contact. Other passengers may not be considered close.

The scope of the app appears to be limited to information provided by transit authorities and other institutions and does not appear to be an all-inclusive method of determining exposure.

The app is state-sponsored and was developed by the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission, and the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation. While critics have said the app presents an invasion of privacy and a way for government to track any user's movements, others have argued that the risk to public health warrants it.

"In this case the public good and the public health has to outweigh the privacy concerns, otherwise we have no shot of doing anything about this," Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told ABC News.

[h/t BBC]

17 of the World’s Oldest Films, Captured by Thomas Edison

A photo of inventor Thomas Edison, who was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847.
A photo of inventor Thomas Edison, who was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thomas Edison was a man of firsts. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that he built the first movie studio in 1893 (called the Black Maria). Stocked with a staff of fellow know-it-alls, Edison’s company made nearly 1200 films. Here are some of Edison’s best oldies, from the first recording of a kiss to the greatest cat video on the internet.

1. Newark Athlete (1891)

Film doesn’t get much older than this! A young boy twirls two Indian Clubs in one of Edison’s earliest experimental film fragments.

2. Fred Ott’s Famous sneeze (1894)

Fred Ott was the jokester of Edison labs, so when Edison needed a model for his new Kinetograph, Ott was the perfect choice. Here, Ott sniffs a pinch of snuff and lets out the sneeze seen ‘round the world. It’s the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture.

3. Carmencita—The first woman on film (1894)

When Spanish dancer Carmencita brought her saucy act to Edison’s lab, she became the first woman ever to appear in front of a motion picture camera.

4. Annie Oakley Sharpshooting (1894)

"Little Sure Shot" Annie Oakley easily obliterated these targets in Edison’s studio. Oakley and Edison met when he visited the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, where she was performing as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

5. Sandow the Strong Man (1894)

Considered the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow could flex some serious muscle.

6. Sioux Ghost Dance: The Native American Film Debut (1894)

Edison’s team was the first to record American Indians with a motion picture camera. Like Oakley, the Sioux here were part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

7. The World’s First Hand-Tinted Motion Picture (1895)

Broadway dancer Annabelle Moore caused a stir when people caught a peek above her knee in this colorful short. Scandalous!

8. The First Kiss for the Movie Cameras (1896)

Actors May Irwin and John Rice smooch for the camera, reenacting a scene from the musical The Widow Jones. It caused an uproar. Not only was it one of the first commercial films shown to the public, it was also the first to capture a kiss.

9. The Sutro Baths (1897)

When San Francisco’s Sutro baths opened in 1896, it was the largest indoor swimming complex in the world. It seems people weren’t on their best behavior there.

10. Wreckage of the Battleship Maine (1898)

In February 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor and ignited the Spanish-American War. This footage by William Paley roves around the wreckage.

11. The First Ballgame on Film (1898)

Possibly the first recording of America’s pastime, ballplayers donning “Newark” jerseys chug to first base.

12. Street-side Acrobatics (1898)

Break dancing has been around longer than you think!

13. The World’s First Car Parade (1899)

The modern automobile was born in 1886, so it was only a matter of time before people started dedicating entire parades to them. Here, Edison’s team captures the first annual automobile parade in Manhattan.

14. What Happened on 23rd Street? (1901)

As trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, and dapper men amble down a dusty NYC street, a couple—two actors—walk to the camera and pause at an air vent. According to the Edison Company’s film catalog, “The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby.” You be the judge.

15. A Bustling Fish market (1903)

Health inspectors patrol this street market in the Lower East Side—once a hub for Jewish commerce—as peddlers and customers bicker. Can you imagine what they’re saying?

16. The Oldest Existing Footage of a Football Game: Princeton and Yale (1903)

Although 50,000 fans were in the New Haven stands, the visiting Tigers got the W, winning 11-6. The action starts at 2:13.

17. The Greatest Video of All-Time (1894)

Behold! The King of Cat videos!

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